With a title meant to inspire, intrigue, and ire, the latest Netflix series “Dear White People” wastes no time challenging and charming audiences. But it might not always manage both. The moment its trailer hit, online outrage came fast and oblivious from those who threatened to boycott the streaming subscription service, accusing the unseen show of “reverse racism.” Apparently, they’d never heard of creator Justin Simien’s 2014 film of the same name, which earned rousing critical praise and became the jumping off point for this scathingly hilarious comedy series. With a bit of retconning and recasting, the new “Dear White People” picks up after the movie’s climactic and catastrophic Dear Black People party, but spins out its resolution in more thorough and thoughtful ways.
Set in the prestigious (and fictional) Winchester University, this sequel/spinoff begins with the campus in turmoil, following a theme party where white students have gleefully donned black face, afro wigs and a barrage of other culturally insensitive costume items, all in a specious celebration of “free speech.” Black student crash the party and call in campus security, bringing the shameful shindig came to a quick end. But the shockwaves sent through the campus are what’s explored in ten-episode arc of the series, the first two of these premiered at SXSW.
If only haters of the Netflix series gave its first episode — or chapter — a chance, they’d hear their complaints about its “aggressive” title quickly addressed, but not with sympathy as much as socio-political savvy and plenty of side-eye. Chapter One follows Samantha White (Logan Browning), a biracial film student who hosts the provocative radio show for which the series is named, and which proved the unwitting inspiration for the scandalous party past.
“Look, I didn’t create this divide, I’m just calling attention to it,” Sam confides with a sharp smile into her mic. “Dear White People is a misnomer. My show is meant to articulate the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority.” Meaning the Netflix show “Dear White People” is less about explaining black experience to a white audience, than it is giving it voice, or rather voices. In Simien’s film, the narrative of this party and its aftermath was shared between the ensemble, allowing audiences to understand the various perspectives among Winchester’s warring student body. The show keeps the ensemble, even adding new characters, but better focuses on individual arcs by grounding each chapter in a different character’s POV.
Radiant with confidence and an unrepentantly irreverent wit that can spin McRib-based conspiracy theories and some guffaw-inducing Cosby jokes, Sam cuts a cool figure as she strides through tall halls and clamoring student lounges. However, while her activism has made her a rock star amongst her Black Caucus cohorts, Sam’s got an uncool secret: a scruffy-faced boyfriend named Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), who may be woke, but is also white.
Through their relationship, “Dear White People” touches on interracial dating, code switching, and the identity crisis many biracial people face. When Sam’s with Gabe, she can set her politics aside for a bit. The couple can quote obscure movies, fuck, and enjoy “Game of Thrones,” without worrying about the larger world. But Sam begins to twitch as these worlds collide, asking Gabe to change into something less likely to stand out before they go to a group hang with her Black Caucus friends. “So in this case you want me to appropriate your culture,” he teases, sauntering past her in shameless sweatpants. Barbed with cheeky debates, it’s in these sweet and sharp moments of character that “Dear White People” is at its best.
Sure, Sam gets her chance to proselytize about politics and racism, subtle and overt, both on her radio show, before her classmates, and even before the Dean. But even her friends get distracted when she gets preachy. Simien knows a message hits harder when expressed through stories that tug at us. And with “Dear White People,” he pulls us to laughter, gasps, cringing, and ultimately empathy. All of it is essential to exploring contemporary race relations in America.
“Dear White People” rejects the popular misconception that black culture is a monolith by delving into the various identities and conflicts thriving within it. Sam’s a biracial girl proud of her black heritage, but drawn to “white” stuff like quirky movies, hippie-bro boys, and problematic fantasy series. In Chapter Two, the focus shifts from Sam to journalism student Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) whose unkempt afro singles him out as a man without a community. He has no one who knows how to cut his hair, and so it becomes an untamed ‘do that draws eyebrow raises and curious fingers.
At Winchester, Lionel is quickly labeled as gay, black, and nerdy. Each label on its own seems ill-fitting to him, but rejecting them outright means this awkward underclassman can’t find a community. “How can you hope to arrive at the truth when you can’t find your own,” his openly gay newspaper editor challenges Lionel. And so he experiments in self-discovery, through a “theater freak” party, a very-college three-way flirtation, and the help (and masturbatory distraction) of his brilliant, black and buff roommate Troy (Brandon P. Bell), who volunteers to cut his hair. In this episode’s climax, Simien retackles the haircut beat from the movie, imbuing it with new relevance, a greater impact in a celebratory conclusion rich with self-acceptance and self-love. And in doing so, the beats to both Chapter One and Two end in a place of humane victory.
Gorgeously shot in a warm palette, “Dear White People” is alive with vibrant cinematography. Low angles dwarf our heroes amid the high halls of Winchester, signaling how its towering traditions might make the marginalized feel small. Swish pans with a smirking whimsy bring verve to walk-and-talks. Thoughtful framing slides the nudity of characters off-screen in sex scenes, keeping the focus on their faces, and their pleasure, rather than subjecting them to a leering lens. What shines are the characters, crafted from full-bodied performances that kick with exhilaration and growing pains. The banter and jokes come so fast and furious that these daring episodes will likely demand re-watching.
When the “Dear White People” movie hit, I was captivated by Simien’s care for his characters, and the blistering brand of humor he brought to every line of dialogue. But I’d walked away a bit underwhelmed, as this story seemed too big to give all its compelling characters their due. This issue is resolves in the series. Here, Simien uses the movie as prologue to a show that better develops and explores his themes, relishing in the complexities, contradictions, joys and frustrations of the black experience. [A-]
“Dear White People” hits Netflix on April 28th.