Modern young adult life is filled with all kinds of puzzles to figure out. Social media, your sexuality, finals, identity politics, relationships, social issues, and much much more. I haven’t seen something articulate the gossipy melodrama, hyper-connected invasiveness, and aspirational revolutionary attitude of this current generation better than Dear White People, the Netflix Original Series produced, written, and sometimes directed by Justin Simien.
[WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FILM] The series serves as a continuation of the story from the 2014 film, also written and directed by Simien. Both works follow a group of black students in a primarily white campus as they navigate their lives as college students. The film follows Samantha White, Lionel Higgins, Troy Fairbanks, and Coco Conners, who are all linked by their race, but the similarities end there. Life is dominated by campus race relations, relationship troubles, and all the college gossip you could want. The film leaves the fictional Winchester University in the aftermath of a blackface party held in response to Samantha’s divisive radio show: Dear White People.
[SPOILER FREE FROM NOW ON] The transition from the movie to film is executed about as well as it could have been. Some of the original actors did not come back for the series and were thus re-casted. The casting is probably the best thing about the transition. The new actors inherit their roles well and develop them uniquely throughout the series, while the returning faces actually thrive in a series format. The cast of characters, from the fiery and rebellious Sam, to the player-politician Troy Fairbanks, the shy and journalistic Lionel Higgins, and the manipulative and intelligent Coco Conners, are all fun to watch. Troy is a player in every sense of the word. From the sheets to the streets, he knows what to say and when to say it to get what he wants, whether that’s class presidency or a hookup.
Each half-hour episode takes a portrait of a single character and follows them through the season story of race relations at Winchester and the episode story of personal drama and growth. The episodes are quite intimate, giving a lot of substance to the characters and access to moments that another point of view would have lost. The finale though breaks the mold and follows the campus as a whole, giving the episode significantly more agility and impact. This is one of the best written shows I’ve ever watched. It covers enough ground to feel dynamic, makes character actions consequential, weaves the personal drama into the racial drama naturally, and even makes you laugh while you’re at it.
After watching the first couple of episodes I could’ve sworn I watched two forty minute episodes, but together they are just about an hour long. Simien did a good job with the film, but he gave me the series long story I never expected to be so invested in. The weakest episode is really only weak because of the actor that has to carry it, John Patrick Amedori who plays Gabe, Sam’s white boyfriend and fellow film student. He does well as a supporting character but relies on the others too much for his own episode. But even that episode is interesting, as it examines Gabe’s attempt to be a supportive white face in a black crowd that generally dislikes him. Morally dubious premises like that are the backbone for the effective episode character arcs.
The satirical aesthetic of the show is also executed to perfection. The design is grounded in real Ivy League campuses but leaves enough spontaneity for over the top jokes and gags. For example, in one of Lionel’s episodes, he is being led on in a couple of situations and always has in his head the voice of his newspaper editor, Silvio, chastising him. The show personifies the voice in the room with Lionel, making for some funny looks and exchanges. Although the characters aren’t aware they are in a show (except for one of my favorite scenes; an aside about how African Americans and Asian Americans have limited options in mainstream film) the show is aware it is a series. Its satirical nature makes it self aware and sets up some poignant moments, like how each episode ends with a shot of the main character for that episode looking right at camera. Looking into the camera is used often in the show, but the endings are great punctuation. It’s brief and seemingly inconsequential, but with the great performances everyone puts in, these moments can either be heartbreaking, empowering, or inspiring, and overall they keep you wanting more.
At face value the show may seem a bit controversial, with the title and Sam’s radio show taking center stage. The marketing alone has scared away and even enraged some people from watching it. It is not that kind of show. Sam is not presented as a messiah spouting truth; she’s a strong willed college student speaking her mind. Whether it’s correct is for the audience to decide. Although the villains are morally terrible and white, this show isn’t painting a picture of a racist white population. The show’s politics are well balanced, especially within AP House. Figuring out the labyrinth of liberalism and race relations is one of the compelling reasons to watch the show. Dear White People is a Degrassi-type student drama for the modern age, which is represented well, with the Internet and social media shown on screen unobtrusively. That modern age just happens to include social issues with campus life.
Netflix Originals are 50/50 for me. The service’s model allows them to make a massive amount of content then throw it out to see what sticks; it’s low-risk/high-reward. It churns out some total crap sometimes. But if it can keep on churning out Dear White People and keep it consistently this great, I am more than willing to endure total crap for more episodic gold.