Binge or No? Netflix's Dear White People
“Dear White People: bet you think this show is about you”, teases a promotional poster for Dear White People, Netflix’s TV adaptation based on the 2014 film of the same name, which premiered on April 28th.
“Wait, is it not?” you might ask. “I mean, the title’s got ‘Dear White People’, so they must be talking to, or about white people, right?”
“And,” you might continue. “If this is a show featuring black people—I mean, I’m not sure because the chick on the poster is one of those gorgeous, ambiguously brown people that National Geographic magazine promises we’re all going to look like in 2050—complaining about white people, isn’t that reverse racism? Or is it racist to wonder if things are racist because we’re all one race, the human race?”
First off, let’s get this out of the way: Dear White People, both the movie and the show, are not some Black Power propaganda that advocates the destruction of the white race, craft beer, ridiculous beards, ironic tattoos, or any of that other stuff that you white people like.
Dear White People can best be described as a modern-day It’s a Different World, if Denise Huxtable and her friends were more politically active and “woke”. The premise is still the same as in the movie: the events take place at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League university, where the combative biracial Sam White (Logan Browning) hosts a radio show called Dear White People that airs black students’ grievances with their so-called “race blind” white classmates. A campus culture war erupts when the (white) staff of the school’s humor magazine hosts a blackface party. Sam leads the charge to shame Winchester for allowing the party to take place, but her activist cred is temporarily questioned when it’s discovered she’s dating Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), a white TA. Additionally, the Black Caucus, the conference of the various black student groups (who can best be summed up as the Malcolm Xerox Generation, the Student Council Suck Ups, the Artsy Fartsy Kids, and the Hufflepuffs) disagree on how race issues should be handled on campus, ranging from protests and marches, to working on a PR campaign with the dean, to spoken word poetry and hashtags.
So who’s right and who’s wrong? The answer is everyone.
One thing I really disliked about the film is that Justin Simien, the director and writer, clearly decided who was in the right and who was in the wrong and tried to swing the viewers’ sympathies by playing up his favorite mouthpieces. The students like Sam White and Reggie Green (Marque Richardson, reprising his role from the film), who were aggressive and confrontational about tackling race head on are portrayed as in the right while Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell, also reprising his role) and Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris in the film, Antoinette Robertson in the series), who try to address race in less direct ways are in the wrong. Thankfully, the TV series gives each character more nuance by using each episode to focus exclusively on the point of view of one of the main characters to explain how and why they’ve chosen their particular stance. Sam is militant because she fears her biracial identity doesn’t make her black enough; Troy’s father believes that if Troy is the second coming of Obama then he’ll be protected from racism; Coco thinks that if she assimilates to white Eurocentric beauty standards then she’ll find a man who will help her achieve her ambitions; and poor Lionel (DeRon Horton) struggles to live life as a black, gay, nerdy kid.
All of the characters want the same thing—to be free of racism—but their various experiences have shaped their ideas on how to achieve it. In one episode, a flashback to Coco’s childhood shows her as a young child being told to play with the “ugly” dark-skinned black doll at daycare. At Winchester, romantic prospects pass her over in favor of her white friends or Sam because she’s too dark-skinned. “You get away with murder because you look more like them than I do. That’s your light-skin privilege. Until you acknowledge that, shut the fuck up about who’s woke and who’s not,” she snaps to Sam in one exchange.
Is it any wonder that Coco thinks sewing in a painful weave and downplaying her blackness as much as possible would make her more socially acceptable, and therefore happier?
Lest you think the show is just a heavy-handed lecture on how hard it is to be black in the world, I want to add that it’s just plain funny. The cast’s comedic chemistry is much stronger than it was in the film and you really feel like you’re watching a group of college friends banter with each other onscreen. Sam and Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherstone, also reprising her role from the film) feel like real best friends as they trade barbs over the taste of McRibs and whether or not they should feel guilty for streaming The Cosby Show; Antoinette Robertson delivers Coco’s Type-A rantings with the wit and fire of a pissed off Elle Woods; and the whole Black Caucus gathers on Wednesday nights to watch Defamation, a parody of Scandal that features an Olivia Pope-expy who offers oral sex in the Oval Office before being interrupted by her not-dead clone father.
Each of the ten episodes is so masterfully directed and written that I can’t pick a favorite. I will admit that “Chapter One” is a little weak, partly because it’s a rehash of the film’s plot, although it’s got more jokes and builds up the relationship between Sam and Gabe to be more affectionate and romantic and less of a point of drama. Special praise has to be given to the fifth episode, which is handled by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. The episode starts off with the gang’s attempts to cheer up a broody Reggie and ends with a dramatic confrontation with the police at a house party. In addition to being a politically relevant plot line, the confrontation sets up much higher stakes for the Black Caucus to fight for. Blackface isn’t acceptable, but every Halloween some university gets publicly shamed for their insensitive costumes, and then by Thanksgiving everyone, even the people offended, forget about it. When the police pull out a gun on a black kid—and only the black kid—at a party, all of Winchester has to admit there’s a real disparity as to how white students and black students are treated at the school and in the world.
It’s easy to dismiss these college kids as a bunch of special snowflakes who are all worked up after one reading of Peggy McIntosh and James Baldwin, but Dear White People points out that, like it or not, black people’s interactions with the world (and with each other) are constantly colored by their blackness. They don’t have the luxury of not seeing race when society is always reminding them of it.
“To be carefree and black is an act of revolution,” argues Joelle in one scene, and that’s exactly how I would characterize this show. In this Dear White People, Justin Simien doesn’t care about making sure his audience knows that racism is bad like how he did in the film, nor does he care about calming down angry racists who are canceling their Netflix subscriptions over this show. He’s just giving a voice to all the black kids who’ve been angry, idealistic, funny, frustrated, afraid, and maybe all five at the same time. Maybe you’ll listen, maybe you won’t. The point is that it’s finally out there, uncensored and unapologetic.
The revolution is being streamed and you don’t want to miss it.
Verdict: Binge it. It’s a funny, sharp, and honest look at what it’s like to be a black face in a white space and all the frustrations and insecurities that come along with it.