Simply put, writer/director Justin Simien’s feature film debut Dear White People was one of 2014’s best movies. Sharp, funny, and extremely relevant, Dear White People shined a light on the modern forms of racism in backhanded ethnicity compliments and assumed stereotypes through satire of American Ivy League college life. Perhaps one of the few problems with the movie was that it was only 108 minutes long with a subject matter that could be talked about for hours on end. Thankfully, it’s Netflix to the rescue with a 10 episode series that allows Simien (and a plethora of other writers) to expand on the complex conversation of racism in America. Does he do it?
Yes….mostly. Dear White People the series starts as the movie ends: at the high-end Winchester University, a party is hosted where white students dress in blackface in response to the college radio segment with the show’s namesake hosted by fierce activist Sam (Logan Browning). Word gets out and the university’s black students come in to (rightfully) break up the party. This causes major debates about race and purpose amongst other black kids on campus. There’s Troy (Brandon P. Bell, reprising his role from the movie), the charismatic potential student body president under the thumb of his imposing father/dean of students but unsure if that’s what he really wants. There’s Coco (Antoinette Robertson), the prissy diva looking to make a name for herself whether it means being the next First Lady or the next U.S. President. There’s Lionel (DeRon Horton), the gay newspaper reporter looking to break out of his introverted shell and let his voice be heard. And there’s Reggie (Marque Richardson, also reprising his role from the movie), Sam’s right hand man in the rally against campus racism trying to find a place for his bottled-up anger. Even Sam herself, who has a secret white boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), is trying to figure if she even wants to keep diving head-first into a revolution or just have a life for herself.
Dear White People does manage to have an interesting story shaped from the aftermath of the movie’s events, using each of its ten episodes (or “chapters” as it says) to have a main character be the narrative guide of the show’s events, intersecting with other characters and plot points. It’s sort-of what the additional season of Arrested Development tried to do, but Dear White People keeps the setting as Winchester and the characters close together, a smart move that allows the audience to keep up with the overlapping events in each chapter. Simien writes and directs three chapters (the first two and the finale), with the likes of Tina Mabry (Queen Sugar), Nisha Ganatra (Fresh Off the Boat, Shameless, Mr. Robot), and even recent Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) directing other episodes. Though all the directors stick to Simien’s format from the movie and the first two chapters, with low-lit scenery and straightforward shooting styles. One recurring and effective directing method is having characters look directly into the camera during emotional high-points, usually at the end of the episode to add a strong punctuation mark. The show relies on the restrained but frustrated faces of its cast, struggling to find definite answers to something that they thought was easy. Even with the exceptionally smooth soundtrack and jazz score in the background, Dear White People is about face-to-face confrontation.
But that confrontation takes a backseat at first. For its first four chapters, Dear White People suffers due to overly-stretched out character set-up and replaying the events at the blackface party. Interspersed with that are what I like to call, The Newsroom-itis, meaning boring and redundant moments of character development that keep delaying the show from its central conflict. It feels like four epilogues to the movie that, even if one hasn’t seen the movie before, add on already explained details about characters that are either expository or throwaway comedic bits.
Fortunately, “Chapter V” happens and then the show kicks into high gear. Centered around Reggie dealing with his place in the movement at Winchester leading to the use of the n-word while singing a rap song. It’s here that the show’s conflicts and talking points become more focused: treatment of black people by law enforcement, the influence of rich white people in Ivy League schools, sexual promiscuity, the difference between light and dark-skinned black people, and the narrow options of success for black people. Again, it’s addressed in full with each individual character’s story arc. Sam doesn’t think she can lead a black power movement while holding hands with Gabe, or “Hipster 8 Mile” as her friends call him, or even if all this protesting has done anything positive. Troy plays politics around campus by charming every possible demographic to vote for him, yet still ends up shaking hands and sharing laughs with the rich wasps that own Winchester showing a black man’s success only amounts to being a white guy’s stooge. Lionel just can’t get his thoughts out of his mouth at a louder octave, whether it’s his sexual frustration or the fact that he gets shot down every time he can’t chase the race factor of his stories. The writers of the episodes, including Charlie McDowell (The One I Love, The Discovery), Jack Moore (Difficult People), and Nastaran Dubai (According to Jim, 3rd Rock from the Sun,), seem to understand that the characters testing their morals makes for better drama than going for easy debate targets.
The best character stories on the show by far are Coco and Reggie, two individuals trying to find their own means of success as black people. Reggie has always had the mind of a militant, angry yet focused on getting results from his actions. It’s here where he’s truly confronted with the horrors of racial America and becomes emotionally shaken to his core. Even when his fellow activists (and Sam, to his delight) start to use him as the platform to move forward with their protest, he still feels like he hasn’t done anything himself but be a victim. Coco, on the other hand, turns people into victims of her warpath to success. She kicks former-friend Sam to the curb to impress a sorority, who also face Coco’s revenge after talking about her behind her back, as she tries to leave her mark as a Queen Bee on campus. She even surrounds herself with a trio of white girls to sneak in with the high-rollers on campus. At first, she thinks being on Troy’s arm will catapult her to power, what with him being the next black President and all (of the student body and the country). But when she sees how the game is played and how unsure of himself Troy is, she tosses him off and struts to her own beat, willing to play ball with the white higher-ups as long as she’s still pulling the strings of her peers. She’s the most fascinating character on the show, making the audience question the morality of rubbing elbows with the oppressors to sneak in the backdoor for a shot at true power. She knows the white kids at Winchester don’t care about Harriet Tubman and knows they want to be as cool as she is, so why stop them?
It’s all wound together by a top-notch cast. While the presence of the great Tessa Thompson is sorely missed, Browning is an exceptional replacement for Sam and actually inhabits the role a touch differently. While Thompson in the movie played Sam as a loud, booming presence, Browning makes Sam more reserved in her powerful poise, with a cold stare and icy tone in her voice to make her digs cut deeper and her emotionally revealing moments all the more heartfelt. Horton may not bring the same experience in awkward comedy to Lionel as Tyler James Williams did in the movie, he makes Lionel feel more fleshed out and layered. Bell pretty much hits the same notes as he did in the movie, but he’s charismatic enough to carry his scenes along. But it all goes back to Reggie and Coco, expertly played by Richardson and Robertson. In the film, Richardson was more of a side-character as the angry sidekick to Sam. On the series, he reserves his anger and channels it into frustration of personal failures. He makes Reggie the soul of the show, allowing audiences to see the effects of facing the racial crisis face-to-face and never being fully prepared for it. Richardson as Coco is an absolute force, showing the baggage Coco has gone through to earn success and how far she’s willing to go to get there. Richardson plays her as part diva, part underdog, part champion, and part villain swirling around in the show’s most interesting character. The show gets a lot of its laughs from the supporting cast, including Ashley Blaine Featherson, Jemar Michael, Jeremy Tardy, and Nia Long.
Dear White People does its job by furthering a vital discussion with interesting characters. It’s a slow start, but it does tackle racial issues without being redundant or overly preachy. It’s easy to be against movies turned into television, but this is a fine model of how to do it. It shows that the racism problem is still present in American culture and can be addressed on television if done through real characters and not caricatures of a real movement.