In 2014, Justin Simien scored a breakout hit at the Sundance Film Festival with his comedic take on race relations in America, Dear White People. It was a modest box office success that came and went from theaters with little fanfare. Perhaps Simien was just a little too ahead of the times with the story of a number of black students at a prestigious Ivy League college. In the years since, we’ve seen the growing emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement; protests on college campuses dominating the political conversation; and, of course, the replacement of the nation’s first black president with a fundamentally ignorant man featuring a lengthy history of racist behavior and the universal support of white supremacist organizations.
In 2017, America hasn’t made much progress in race relations. As a matter of fact, as mentioned earlier, it seems to have gotten a lot worse. So it’s only fitting that Simien would revamp his original film and expand upon his ideas in the new Netflix series Dear White People. Now, don’t think that this is going to be a 10-episode series lecturing a white audiences about their failings in matters of race. Oh no, buster. Dear White People is a funny, insightful show that looks at identity politics in a variety of different ways, each smarter than the next. This show panders to no audience. Everyone is in Simien’s crosshairs and what ensues is a refreshing and often quite funny look at how many different ways there are to approach issues of identity as well as the shortcomings of all the different approaches. The only people who will be outraged by the content of Dear White People are the folks who enter the show expecting to find something to hate (they’re likely on social media with a cartoon frog as their avatar).
At Winchester University, a controversy is brewing. Pastiche, the schools humor paper a la Harvard Lampoon, has just held a party where white attendees were encouraged to attend in blackface. The black students got wind of this and weren’t having it, showing up and crashing the party. This sets forth a chain of events that will rock this institution of higher learning as the campus swells with unsettling racial tension.
Each of the series’ 10 episodes follows an individual character and their experiences at Winchester past and present and how it all leads to where the series winds up. Front and center is Samantha White (Logan Browning), a biracial woman with radicalized tendencies that she vocalizes on her college radio show Dear White People. There’s also Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the dean and heartthrob poised to become the next student president; Coco (Antoniette Robertson), an out of place socialite that doesn’t quite fit in with the affluent white crowd, or the black crowd; Reggie (Marque Richardson), who is often Samantha’s partner in crime though he’s obviously got feelings for her; Lionel (DeRon Horton), a gay journalism student just coming to terms with his sexuality while covering the school’s ongoing problems; and Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), the white liberal student who is currently in a relationship with Samantha.
Adopting a format that follows the perspective of individual characters throughout the series allows us to see how the same events are interpreted differently by the various characters as well as the layers that lead to many of the show’s confrontations. We’re given glimpses into the pasts of these characters which reveals the roots as to certain feuds and romantic pasts. Simien and his team of writers have created a roster of characters with incredible depth that serve as a reminder that we’re all people molded by personal experience more so than cultural predetermination. What works so well with this show is the fact that we’re able to see all sides of these characters, whether the brave face they put on in public or their vulnerability in private.
Transposing the story to a television series allows Simien to add layers and layers of depth to events and characters that weren’t possible in a 100-minute film. I liked Dear White People the movie but I love Dear White People the show for just this reason. As the series progresses, the depth provided these characters challenges the viewer’s notions of who they think these characters are on a surface level. We’re witness to how these characters came to be themselves, the loves they lost, the loves they wish they had, and an array of moments that define their approaches to life.
Dear White People hits racial issues in America through a lens of varying experience, not simply making it an issue of black and white. Beyond the nuance it approaches racial issues in America, the show hits these issues with a razor-sharp wit that is as funny as it is illuminating. Justin Simien and his team of writers and directors, including Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, understand that matters of race and sexuality in America aren’t simply binary, and that careful nuance presented with humor makes Dear White People unlike anything ever before it.
When the trailer for Netflix’s Dear White People landed on the internet, a group of snowflake conservatives took exception to the show’s title and projected their worst fears of an impending race war where the oppressed blacks take violent retribution against their white oppressors onto the show. There was a childish hashtag that circulated on Twitter about cancelling Netflix and the show’s IMDB page is littered with “reviews” from YouTube personalities that haven’t watched one second of the actual show. First of all, nobody seemed to realize that this was based on a movie that’s a couple years old. Secondly, there’s nothing in the show that is offensive unless you want to offended for the sake of your own politically fueled outrage. Dear White People is a show that handles the trickiest topics in America with wit and wisdom. Whatever would-be controversy that a few attempted to stir up around the show just isn’t there.
As good as Dear White People is at handling these tricky issues of race and sexuality, what really stood out to me is how Justin Simien and company convey that panic over what’s happening on college campuses across the country are probably the biggest overreaction going on in America right now. These are young people learning about themselves and the world at the same time and sometimes they take radical positions as a rejection of their past selves. Sometimes that leads people in the wrong direction and sometime it leads them in the right direction. The context provided to each character emphasizes this point and as we learn about how their pasts shape their present that depth only serves to remind us that youth is a maze without a map, and sometimes our initial instincts aren’t always correct. To judge people based on their race, sexuality, or simply because they’re politically active youths is never the right action without better understanding just how these people were shaped by their life experience.
These are politically fraught and volatile times and Dear White People comes into the most dangerous territory possible and doesn’t do a single thing wrong with its examination of identity politics and race relations in America. Dear White People isn’t going to be some comedic beacon to make the most ardent conservatives see the errors of their ways in terms of racial politics, but there’s not a single thing in the show to validate their deepest held fears. Here is a well-acted, well-directed, and absolutely hilarious look at some of the most difficult issues for people to talk about in America. Therein lies the beauty of Dear White People – for too long Americans have been content to pretend that racial strife was a thing of the past, but it isn’t. It’s impossible to have an honest discussion about an issue if people don’t want to admit there’s an issue to discuss. There’s an issue alright, and it’s not a simple matter to discuss. It’s not simply black and white. It’s not simply gay or straight. It’s much more complex. Dear White People allows us to laugh while examining the multitudes of the topics being handled while allowing the audience to gain a better grasp on every nuance, every crevice of an unsettled discussion. That’s why it’s a vital and welcome entry to the ongoing discourse.
Dear White People
- Overall Score
An all-encompassing skewering of identity politics, Dear White People is vibrant, hilarious, and insightful look at issues of race, sexuality, and identity.