It’s fitting that “Dear White People” is set at an Ivy League school, because the new Netflix series — based on Justin Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name — serves as a crash course in racial relations for audiences who don’t have enough black friends to educate them on how many of the jokes, stereotypes, and assumptions they make about non-whites are more than just insulting, but in many cases downright dangerous.
Of course, while pitching it that way serves to underscore the show’s importance, it detracts from how clever and entertaining “Dear White People” can be. If cutting-edge social commentary is the medicine, then wit, attitude, and a terrifically charismatic black-led cast is the sugar that will help it go down. And make no mistake: “Dear White People” is meant for both white and black audiences (and every other color imaginable), as “ethnic but nonthreatening” narrator Giancarlo Esposito makes clear from the outset.
Written with just enough edge to make even those ostensibly progressive enough to be above it all squirm, without necessarily alienating more mainstream viewers, the first two episodes (which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival weeks ahead of the season’s April 28 release) launch a head-on attack at the sort of casually oppressive racism that’s practiced on college campuses every day. More specifically, it opens with a huge Winchester U. party hosted by literary journal Pastiche in satirical response to college radio commentator Samantha’s combative “Dear White People” show. The white humorists’ idea of a clever response: throw a “Dear Black People” party where everyone comes dressed in blackface. In 2017.
That extremely ill-advised shindig, the lead-up to it, and the direct aftermath serve as the “Rashomon”-like bombshell that the series will examine from different angles over the course of its first season, presenting a different character’s POV in each episode. And though it’s hard to imagine Simien and his team making these same events feel fresh when revisited that many times, what’s great about this concept is the way it acknowledges how, in those rare cases when a TV series is permitted to feature more than one person of color, they are anything but redundant, but rather, are likely to have entirely unique and often contradictory positions — just as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. did — while agreeing on the general principle that society still has a long way to go.
Don’t like what Sam says on her “Dear White People” radio show? Don’t worry, plenty of the show’s characters agree with you. Wish there were room for more conciliatory, queer, or even white voices in the mix? There will be.
Those familiar with Simien’s Sundance-launched feature will surely notice how he has progressed. He’s more confident behind the camera here, and more focused in his writing as well. The style hasn’t necessarily changed, but whereas it felt a bit too TV for the big screen before (channeling the shooting and acting of white-bread shows like “My So-Called Life” and “Undeclared”), his approach is right at home on Netflix, where it’s free to be dizzyingly hip and CW-square within the space of a single scene. (And isn’t it quaint to imagine a college where too-cool-for-school students can still be reached by radio and newspaper commentators?)
The first episode belongs to Sam (Logan Browning), who rubs her peers at the campus’s Armstrong-Parker historically black residence wrong when they discover that she’s been hooking up with the TA from one of her summer classes — a “Gosling-eyed” white boy named Gabe (John Patrick Amedori). Like classic burns in an extemporaneous rap battle, the rat-a-tat one-liners come fast and furious, laced with pop-culture references to everything from Miley Cyrus to McRib sandwiches, though characters here are all sharp enough to defend themselves. Even the pidgin-English African can defend himself, noting how he speaks six languages, when his classmates have barely mastered one.
The second is all about labels, which closeted kid reporter/amateur filmmaker Lionel (DeRon Horton, one of many carryovers from the film’s original cast) summarily rejects, only to be put in his place by openly gay school newspaper editor with the line, “Labels keep people in Florida from drinking Windex.” Certainly, notions of identity — and the struggle for college students to figure out who they are when society is trying so hard to tell them who to be — are at the heart of this series.
It’s a credit to Simien that the characters are allowed to be contradictory, taking a stand with an audience one moment, only to roll back and do the opposite the next. Diversity isn’t just about skin color, but opinions as well — and that’s where “Dear White People” stands to change the dialogue most.