Smeared as reverse-racist on Twitter, promoted with sly trigger warnings by Netflix, Dear White People reveals itself to be something more nuanced and extremely entertaining. The 10-ep binge is a droll college coming-of-age comedy from a fresh, needed point of view and a smart, satirical take on pressing matters of race, identity and cultural conversation that spares no one. It’s the rare film-to-TV adaptation that’s superior to the original and the rare Netflix show that makes every episode matter. Also? It’s really damn funny.
Perhaps you didn’t see the movie version of Dear White People. Released in 2014, the low budget indie and Sundance darling grossed $4.5 million, a profitable sum. Still, writer/director Justin Simien established himself as a true talent, and that provocative title transcended the work to become that most valuable of media things, a brand name. Bringing his creation to TV, Simien, who writes and directs 3 of the 10 episodes (the first two and the finale), recycles the film’s themes and character arcs, but with a new plot and meaty elaborations. Set at a fictional, mostly white Ivy League university, the series follows a group of black students who reside in the all-black dormitory of Armstrong-Parker. Blowing up the often racist construct of homogeneousness, Simien depicts a fragmented community of singular individuals and cliques, fraught with tension over competing perspectives on blackness and strategies for social change. (Among the few things that unite them, there’s “Defamation,” Simien’s nasty parody of ABC’s Scandal. It’s a weekly hate-watch event at the AP House.)
Holding the center is Samantha White (an excellent Logan Browning), an Army jacket-clad media studies major. Exasperated by the racism, ignorance and dim, demeaning attitudes of her white classmates (“You like Beyonce!” “Storm from The X-Men!” “Wait — what are you?”), Sam has embarked on a mission to enlighten her campus with a combative radio program. Sample advice, dripping with deliberate, cutting condescension: “Dear White People, here’s a little tip. When you ask someone who looks ethnically different ‘What are you?’ the answer is usually: ‘A person who is about to slap the s—t out of you.’” She’s polarizing, even an outsider, among her black peers. Sam is of mixed race and marked by complexities that get tagged as hypocrisies, perhaps unfairly. She’s got a white boyfriend, Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), but she keeps him on the down low. She loves Ingmar Berman; a Persona poster hangs on her wall, a tale of blurred identity that speaks to her.
We sympathize with Sam in her pursuit of truth, justice and white hot sex, but she has issues to examine and check, including some privilege. One essential episode explores her collapsed friendship with former roommate Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson), who initially presents as a shallow material girl, but like every character on this show, hides intricacies to be unpacked. The girls began to drift; the police shooting of an unarmed black kid makes national news. Sam, raised in the suburbs, is shocked and catalyzed to activism. Coco, whose far tougher, rougher upbringing was full of such tragic injustice, shuts down and shuts it out; she came to college to escape all that, not engage in it.
The plot of the season is set in motion by an event that served as the climax of Simien’s film. It seems the white guys that run the school’s infamous humor mag, Pastiche, devoted to mocking anyone they deem “too self-important,” thought it would be funny to throw a blackface party, basically to teach Sam a lesson. (Responds Sam: “Dear White People, here are a list of acceptable Halloween costumes. A pirate, slutty nurse, any of our first 43 presidents. Top of the list of unacceptable costumes? Me.”)
The truth and the consequence of this outrage is complex, and the first half of the season explores every angle, moving back and forth in time to fill in the blanks, with each well-crafted episode profiling a character. While the show would seem to be all about race, and it is, Dear White People is about themes that mark most college narratives, questioning, dismantling, exploring and reconstructing identity. The second episode, focusing on gay nerd and aspiring journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), is a loony coming-out story that interrogates the value and limits of finding your “label” and leaning into it. The third episode digs into Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), hunky big man on campus skilled at politics and assimilating, yet full of self-loathing; he rebels against himself and his father, the school’s dean, with reckless hedonism.
Dear White People gives you an abundance of characters to care about and entertains with its inspired, hilarious storytelling. Simien keeps and hones the heightened reality style of his film. The meticulous compositions and meta-awareness are reminiscent of the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. His politically-aware, pop-soaked dialogue is amped-up, approaching the dense, warp speed banter of Gilmore Girls. (“I’m pretty sure the McRib was invented by Republicans in the eighties to destroy black communities, along with crack and Jerry Springer.” “Suck it, Reagan, I’m still here! And please note I will be showing up on McRib day in a Shirley Chisholm T-shirt, sans internal conflict.”)
The tone blends distancing irony and poignant melodrama. Giancarlo Esposito voices our “ethnic but non-threatening” narrator who calls out storytelling choices, comments on the characters, and underscores the relevancy. (Think white people throwing racist blackface parties aren’t really a thing? “Google it,” he says.) A recurring motif has the episode’s featured character striking a pose during the credits scene or ending the story by looking to camera. This interactivity and self-awareness makes Dear White People pop culture about pop culture, and specifically, pop culture that’s about — and seeks to entertain all audiences with — black characters. But it also captures the experience of black self-consciousness, of moving through life constantly knowing you’re constantly being watched.
The writers and directors that follow Simien sustain the aesthetic and even improve upon it. Episode 5, directed by Moonlight Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, showcases Reggie (Marque Richardson), who’s Sam’s male ideological twin and carries a torch for her. In a plot point that nods to The Social Network, Reggie develops an app that allows people to rate each student on how “woke” they are. Jenkins handles the mix of tines with confidence and subtlety. There’s high concept satire, romantic pining, and characters that break the fourth wall to discuss black representation in pop culture. In an episode that represents an homage and cross-time response to Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, the centerpiece is a house party that organically escalates from everyone-getting-along camaraderie to explosive racially-charged conflict. The sequence captures our national mood, but also illustrates the idea that racism exists on a spectrum, and implicitly asks if our responses to racism should be, too. Dear White People is about all the urgent hot take issues and the cost of denying their validity. But it’s just as much about how we talk about these issues, and the price we pay for not meeting the challenge of grace. A