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'Dear White People' A Hit At Sundance


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, a recap of music's biggest night - the Grammys. But first, let's talk film because another big cultural pow-wow is wrapping up in Park City, Utah. That's the Sundance Film Festival. It's become a major showcase for new and established talent both in front of and behind the camera. Pulitzer-Prize winner and Grantland film critic Wesley Morris was there, and he's with us now to talk about some of the work that he saw, with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Wesley, thanks so much for joining us once again. Welcome back.

WESLEY MORRIS: Hi, Michel. What's going on?

MARTIN: Well, you're going to tell me. So one of the films that caught your attention was "Dear White People." It's a racial satire about the experiences of four black students at a predominately white Ivy League college. What did you like about it?

MORRIS: I think it's smart. I had low expectations for a movie based on a Twitter handle. I got to be honest with you.

MARTIN: Right. As well you should.

MORRIS: Yeah, the director is Justin Simien. He had this Twitter handle, among other things, and the idea was to sort of look at the ways in which people look at race and to make fun of it. Or people - things people say, things people do, things people assume from a white perspective and roast those things a la - via twitter.

MARTIN: Well, you know, he was talking about - I think he feels - I think he was saying that he - this kind of came in part from his own college experience on a...

MORRIS: Yeah, I mean.

MARTIN: ...Majority white campus. Let me just play a short clip from him. We can hear his voice. Here it is.


JUSTIN SIMIEN: I just sort of thought that was an interesting sort of black experience, you know, going between, you know, your white worlds and your Black worlds and just being confused as to what parts of, you know, black culture I'm supposed to be today. You know, I just felt like that needed to be commented on. I think everyone can relate to being an other at some point.

MARTIN: I just love that. I just think that needed to be commented on. I'm going to use that every day.

MORRIS: You do it every day, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, thank you.

MORRIS: That's your job.

MARTIN: Does it pick up where "School Daze" left off in some ways? I know I remember that kind of Spike Lee had kind of a stab at this. Or there was another film earlier about the kind of the - you know what I mean? There have been kind of attempts before at a comment on that kind of observation. Is this - does this take us into a new place?

MORRIS: It does. And I think that it's very conscious of its legacy as being part of this on this cinematic continuum of films about race set at colleges. And this one is set at an Ivy League school. John Singleton's "Higher Learning," for instance, was set at a university school. Spike Lee's was set at an all-black college. This is set at a kind of Ivy League school. And the thing that's sort of interesting to me and the thing I like so much about it is that it is equally contemptuous of everybody, and everybody is guilty of something. All the black, white - well, it's mostly black and white. But at some point, the Hispanics and Asians at least get lip service to being involved in the big race riot that happens toward the end. And I think...

MARTIN: Oh, spoiler. There's a race riot.

MORRIS: Oh, no. Trust me. There's so many things happening in this movie.


MORRIS: It's impossible to spoil it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, so people will find it - you think other people will find it true - there's a kind of a ring of truth to it even if it's a satire.

MORRIS: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I do.

MARTIN: So tell me about another film that you found interesting, "Infinitely Polar Bear." And it stars Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana. Tell us about it.

MORRIS: It's got a bad title. It's got - well, it's got a salable title, I guess, once you know that it's about two daughters living with their mentally ill father, who's played by Mark Ruffalo. And the mother is Zoe Saldana. And the two girls are just wonderful. That's the thing I love about this movie. It's not a great piece of film making. Although I will say that the director Maya Forbes has a very good sense of what she wants to do. And what she wants to do is not, you know, change movie history or, you know, burn down the cinema.

She just wants to tell the story, I think, that's personal to her about her father's own mental illness and her growing up with him. And the girls in this movie are so good. And she's so - Maya Forbes is so good at directing all of the children in this movie so that the movie is more or less from their perspective. And there's this emotional tug of war about wanting to be a girl and then wanting - and then having to be responsible for this man who can't really be responsible for himself, but is supposed to be responsible for you.

MARTIN: You're right. That is a story a lot of people will understand and relate to.

MORRIS: And it's very moving. It's mostly a comedy, and that's the other thing that I'm impressed by. She takes it as seriously as she can without being overbearing. And it's mostly a very funny story with a perceptive audience that'll know that it's a serious matter at the same time. But the girls are great.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, that's good to hear. So speaking of a serious matter, there's a documentary that stood out to you that you wanted to tell us about - "We Come As Friends." And it's about a part of the world that we talk about quite often, which is South Sudan. Meanwhile, a man from France flies in looking for stories. Tell us why you like this one.

MORRIS: I just think it's a really interesting way to look at this problem. And a lot of it is very - this is a guy named Hubert Sauper, and he made a film a couple - maybe 10 years ago now, called "Darwin's Nightmare," which is absolutely - if you haven't seen that, it's devastating. But it's also - there's a kind of artfulness about it. And he is continuing these films in Africa, which look at the problems of Africa's place in the larger global dynamic in which nations come in and take advantage of, in this particular case, the fighting in South Sudan.

And they just pillage the resources while allowing genocide to occur because it's easier to do that than have the Africans be able to manage themselves, and then say, no, you can't take our land and our resources if you're not going to give anything back. But the approach Sauper takes is that - he makes it very dreamlike, and he does a lot of sort of impressionistic stuff in terms of looking at how the Africans themselves feel about this dynamic. He gets some camera phone footage from one of the soldiers who is - just come home from a killing spree.


MORRIS: It's an infuriating movie, mostly, because you just can't believe that in 2013, '14, '12, that people still are so comfortable with cameras being around them that they will say the most incriminating things. There are - there's a U.N. guy who doesn't come off well. There are a couple other people who don't come off well in terms of what they think they're doing in Africa versus what we as an audience understand them to be doing.

MARTIN: So it's very revealing...

MORRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...In the fullest sense of the word. You know, there's - finally, there's a thriller you wanted to tell us about called "Whiplash" that you noticed was quite a crowd pleaser. I always want to know what you're laughing about since you saw it and we didn't, so, you know.

MORRIS: Well, I mean, this movie's ridiculous. But it's ridiculous in the best possible way.


MORRIS: It is basically a movie about a jazz musician - a jazz student and his psychotic jazz teacher. The student's played by Miles Teller, who's becoming a staple at Sundance, and J.K. Simmons plays the teacher. And he's very fit in this movie. He's all cut up. And it basically turns into a thriller about perfection and about - the great thing about the movie, in some ways, is - the director's name is Damien Chazelle who grew up as a musician. He's gone to music school. And this is his second film. And it's about the physical labor that it takes to become a great musician and a great artist - like, the physical labor of, like, perfecting the cymbal taps and the beats on the snare.

MARTIN: Yeah, but it sounds terrible. So the teacher's a crazy person, and so it sounds terrible.

MORRIS: He is a crazy person.

MARTIN: So what did you like about it? It just - it's so - it's so...

MORRIS: I mean, the thing that we all love about thrillers which is to be put in suspense and to have your adrenaline go up in 90 minutes. You know, it is so well-made and so effectively acted and - that you don't even - you almost don't even care about the fact that it's a jazz movie about two white guys in which lots of black guys sit around, and be like, well, I guess that kid's got it going on. OK.

MARTIN: Good point. We only have like 20 seconds left. So...


MARTIN: But you're saying Sundance is not like the little Indie outsider thing anymore. You're saying it's big time, right?

MORRIS: No. I mean, it's changing. It's changing. I mean, you will...

MARTIN: For the better, for the worse?

MORRIS: You know, that's a good question. I think it's both better and worse. I think you won't find things that cost $20,000 anymore that get major distribution. I mean, everything looks like it cost about $20 million - almost everything looks like it cost about $20 million. Nothing looks cheap anymore. And part of that is technology and part of it is the money coming from these independent funding sources or the, you know, the aggregation of these independent funding sources.


MORRIS: You've got guys who now manage the money to go into these independent films, and it's changing.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thanks so much for bringing us up to date. Wesley Morris, thank you for not changing, Wesley Morris. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic. He's writing now for Grantland. Thanks so much for joining us.

MORRIS: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.