Following the commercial success of the controversial series, Thirteen Reasons Why, Netflix brings us Dear White People. The show follows a group of black students at the prestigious Ivy League school, Winchester University. No character was a token character, but instead, their stories were used to represent a different part of the black experience. On the surface, it is a show that humanizes the black experience in the hopes that white people become more empathetic, but it quickly transforms into a lesson for the black community about unity in the face of the oppressor. It starts off with Sam White (Logan Browning), host of Winchester University’s radio slot “Dear White People,” facing backlash over dating her white TA, Gabe Mitchell (John Patrick Amedori). I’m relieved that they skipped the tired narrative of racial tension being at the pinnacle of their story. Instead, their relationship was rooted in a genuine deep connection and put an end to the idea that black women are only fetishized by outside races. He didn’t patronize her activism or belittle her frustrations. In fact, he was the image of a true white ally.
As the series progresses, all of the characters become fleshed out and multidimensional. Burning Sands’ Deron Horton plays Lionel, the nerdy geek whose story follows two of his battles: being able to overcome his crippling social anxiety (which I found to be the comedic relief during overly emotional scenes), as well as dealing with the pressures of being a gay man in the black community. He’s arguably the driving force of the show’s plot. He is the common link between many pivotal incidents that move the show forward. For example, he organized a group of students to break up a blackface party, which sparks a necessary dialogue about racism on their campus. In the aftermath, every group that is dedicated to black students on campus becomes a part of the discussion, introducing Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson), Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), and Winchester presidential candidate, Troy Fairbrooks (Brandon P. Bell). Coco, the true definition of bad and boujee, serves as the foil to Sam’s efforts and strategic activism. Former roommates, the two clash over everything from boys to politics. The best thing about Coco is her story breaks open the stereotype of the independent black woman, showing the vulnerability behind the facade. Her quest to find “the one” often conflicts with her ambitions to become successful in her own right. She is truly my favorite character, with countless examples of her badassery. Once she finally realizes her backbone, she is the biggest threat to her complicated love interest: Troy.
Constantly living in his father’s shadow, and not having yet realized how to be his own person and stand up for himself, Troy’s character shows the root of where a black man’s frustrations arise in the professional world. His campaign as the first black president of Winchester High is the epitome of “work twice as hard to get half as far” narrative. He has to emulate perfection to keep his dad satisfied while playing puppet to the white elites that fund the school. Coupled with the internal conflict of which side of the revolution he’s on, his character will reach his breaking point. Similarly, Reggie’s perspective shows what it’s like to be a harmless black man assumed to be a threat. He feels the terror of being a black man even before a trigger-happy cop pulls a gun out on him at a party. Afterward, he is the center of the new motivations for protesting on campus, initiated by Sam, with whom he is hopelessly in love with from their first encounters two years earlier.
I praise Justin Simien for putting together a seamless masterpiece that illustrates being black on a mostly white college campus. This show is so solid on its own, that even if you didn’t previously tune into the 2014 movie of the same name, you’ll be fulfilled. As someone who goes to an HBCU, I can only imagine what it must feel like to be misrepresented and ignored by most of the student body. I was opened up to a perspective so many of my peers experience. This show also did a wonderful job of fully expressing the intersectionality of black millennials. We are not all activists, we are not all thugs, and we are not the same. From microaggressions to the blatant caricaturizing of our culture’s history, Dear White People shows how much shit we have to repress and swallow on a day to day basis amongst white peers in different spaces. We even see the conflict within the black community, which at times seems like a contest to see who is the “blackest” and cares most about ending racism. The only complaint I do have with this show is that I didn’t get to know much about Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson), Sam’s current best friend. She seems to be the glue that keeps the characters together, individually and collectively. All she got was friendzoned by Reggie for half the season, but she deserved so much more, and better be much more involved in the next season.
In closing, it should be noted that this show is based purely out of satire. It’s meant to be dramatic in the spirit that the extreme, yet very realistic, scenarios emphasize the flaws in society’s system of power. It’s not meant to provoke or offend white people, but instead to enlighten them on how much their privilege allows them to be oblivious to the struggles of outside groups. Simien takes a page out of How To Get Away With Murder’s playbook and takes the nonlinear approach to storytelling, weaving back and forth between past and present to begin each character’s story in a place that aligns with their narrative. With the exception of a few trivial and barely necessary subplots, this series is a thought-provoking work of art that I couldn’t get enough of, and finished in one day. It does an excellent job of not getting caught up in one aspect of the show, so you rarely get tired of anyone’s story. This gets an 8/10 from me. So join the conversation, and watch Dear White People, currently available for streaming on Netflix.