TV Review: ‘Dear White People’ on Netflix

Dear White People
Courtesy Netflix

There are sure to be many contenders for the title of Most Quotable Show of 2017, but it’ll be hard to top “Dear White People.” This smart and necessary Netflix series, an extension of the film of the same name by Justin Simien, is full of incisive asides, witty quips and painfully funny observations.

A student at tony Winchester University remarks that racism is something she thought only existed “in the ’50s, or in Buzzfeed articles.” An African-American woman’s white love interest is dubbed “Disney Channel Obama.” Characters under pressure decide, rightly or wrongly, to get “white-girl wasted.” At a campus protest, a bunch of oblivious white students arrive with tin-eared signs they think supply bracing satire. Their posters are not funny at all, except the one that says “Bring Back ‘Felicity’!”

“Dear White People,” which focuses on the experiences of black students at Winchester, explores identity politics, a topic that can be weighty, especially on the campus of a prestigious private university, where the price tag on being included in an array of interconnected cultural debates is in the five figures.

But this half-hour series lightens its load by recognizing that all the people on screen are just barely suppressing sometimes unflattering but frequently hilarious views about the outlooks and choices of the people around them. The same self-preservation instinct that sometimes provokes defensive reactions among Winchester’s most politically aware and ambitious students also provides a blizzard of snappy comebacks that contain a lot of truth. A quick scan of Twitter and a binge-watch of “Dear White People” both confirm that scathing wit is not just an avenue of resistance but a much-needed pressure-release valve. 

In the first half of the season, however, the show’s best jokes often have a crisp focus that certain episodes lack. Moments of outsized satire dont quite mesh with more low-key but effective elements, like a sequence of character-driven scenes set in a scuzzy off-campus bar, or a deftly handled confrontation in which two characters cross paths in a dorm bathroom at an awkward moment. Perhaps this is somewhat appropriate for a comedy about college students who are still forming their identities, but “Dear White People” sometimes can’t quite decide if it wants to be a sitcom that riffs on the doings of broad comic types, or the kind of semi-serious streaming comedy that’s grounded in tangible emotions and important, complicated issues.

Some of the show’s eclecticism is clearly intentional — one episode’s homage to various classic films is entertaining, and there are scenes that play around with perspective in ways that aren’t necessarily distracting. The dry narration by Giancarlo Esposito, which is only intermittently introduced, is often amusing. But a few episodes peter out rather than end, plot lines are dropped and picked back up in ways that interfere with the show’s fitful momentum, and there are some minor characters that seem as though they were swiped from a much less subtle program.

But like an enthusiastic student navigating that challenging and exhilarating first year of college, the debut season finds its groove in the home stretch. The show is essentially about the compromises that young people have to make with the world and with each other, despite differences of class, race, gender, skin tone and political worldview. It’s never an elegant process, especially as the pressures of adulthood loom, and this certainly isn’t an easy time to be a politically and socially aware human being.

The show finds ways to illuminate those kinds of thorny challenges without being preachy, and most importantly, it succeeds in its core mission: It is wise and emotionally acute when it comes to depicting the specific ways in which the deck is stacked against African-Americans, even those with terrific grade point averages and enviable resumes.

The characters of “Dear White People” are constantly in transit among multiple worlds with very different outlooks, and the show finds believable and specific ways to depict the fact that, for men and women of color, at times it can be overwhelming to navigate all the social nuances, academic expectations, political arguments and interpersonal challenges. “Dear White People” is always ready to dole out blistering wit and knowing irony, but it also quite compassionately examines the ways in which its characters rise to the daily challenges they face — or sometimes tune them out with drugs, sex, work, meetings, protests or big headphones clamped down on a weary head.

Logan Browning does a fine job of leading the charge as Sam, the activist who navigates the personal and political with a mixture of anger and tentative tenderness that’s eminently believable. Sam’s take-no-prisoners radio show gives the program its name, and she’s deeply involved with the incidents that open and close the season: a blackface party on campus, and a town hall meeting to discuss the state of race relations at Winchester.

The show sometimes squanders the suspense leading up to or following those incidents, but over the course of the season, they provide a series of challenges for handsome student-body president Troy (Brandon P. Bell) and social climber Coco (Antoinette Robertson), who are both committed to winning a series of games that are decidedly rigged against them. Like Troy’s father, a dean at Winchester, they are determined to work inside the system to create a more tolerant university community. Sam and members of other African-American student groups, whose willingness to challenge the status quo varies, often question whether the kind of change the most moderate students are willing to accept consists of nothing more than a PR spin and window dressing.

As it relaxes into the students’ lives, and explores their feelings about lovers of other races, the semi-compromised state of student journalism on campus, and the mental cost of always bracing for the next round of idiotic statements from aggrieved white bros, “Dear White People” does an increasingly assured job of depicting the amused frustration and disillusioned exhaustion of these students.

Barry Jenkins, the director of “Moonlight,” helms one episode that gets at the heart of a black man’s emotional turmoil so well that it’s impossible not to be moved. Two of the quieter students —the ones who observe everything and miss nothing — should get even more screen time next season (if there is one): DeRon Horton’s Lionel, a writer who freezes in social situations, is a subtle delight, and Ashley Blaine Featherson is pitch-perfect as Joelle, the friend whom everyone relies on but no one truly sees.

With any luck, Lionel, Joelle and Reggie, a character who pines for Sam and who also feels unseen (except by the campus cops), will all get more to do if classes at Winchester are back in session in 2018. Despite a few first-year wobbles, sophomore year can’t come soon enough.

Variety also reviewed the first two episodes of the series during its South by Southwest debut in March.