Even if Dear White People didn’t work in practice, it would be exciting in principle. The concept for Justin Simien’s 2014 film is one that was always better suited to a long format because it’s more about a community at a certain point in history than it is about the individual characters and their storylines. Simien incubated the project over several years before finally putting the financing in place, and Dear White People entered the woefully short list of indie films about contemporary black life that wouldn’t exist at all if not for a rare combination of good fortune and sheer will. Now it exists as a series, during a moment when the surplus of contemporary black screen stories represents an embarrassment of riches. What a time to be alive.
In adapting his film into a series, Simien shrewdly went back to his original concept and created the series as if the movie hadn’t existed, as if he’d been able to supersize his vision on the first go-round. Logan Browning (of VH1’s cheerleading drama Hit The Floor) steps into the role of Samantha White, a biracial junior media studies major and the voice behind Dear White People, the controversial radio show roiling the campus of Winchester University. Sam’s latest campus justice cause is a blackface party thrown by the writers of Pastiche, Winchester’s ivy humor rag and a major contributor to the school-to-late-night-comedy pipeline. In the aftermath of the party, which shuts down in a hurry once a group of actual black people shows, the university’s duplicative black student organizations convene to discuss next steps.
Simien doesn’t assume the audience knows anything about the world of Winchester, so the first act of “Chapter I” is incredibly dense, cramming a ton of names, faces, and places in only a few minutes time. The first 10 minutes are so operate like a blunt instrument swung at high speed, even employing a “non-threatening” narrator, which feels like overkill given how Sam’s radio show already operates as a sort of voice of God. At least Simien is self-deprecating in his script, with the narrator admitting the writers were “too lazy” to find another vessel for the avalanche of exposition.
Dear White People becomes a show near the end of the Black Caucus, when Sam’s nemesis Coco Conners spots her in a compromising Instagram post and tags her, thereby introducing black Winchester to Sam’s new white boyfriend. The scenes that follow are among the best moments of “Chapter I” but also the scenes that feel the least natural. I don’t quite buy that Sam’s relationship with Gabe would create that level of universal and public rebuke, even under these circumstances. Original recipe covert shade would be thrown liberally by Coco and others, and Hotep Winchester would tear Sam apart in private. But the immediate revolt against Sam doesn’t feel like it squares with these characters who seem sophisticated enough to understand that even the most woke among us has declared the bedroom a politics-free zone. (Rashid gets it!)
At the same time, there’s something authentic about the reaction since college campuses provide the ideal conditions for tempests in teapots. A school like Winchester is an honest-to-goodness microcosm, big enough to represent all manner of identity, origin, and worldview, but small and self-contained enough that one person can affect broad change. So I can see how it would feel heavy to find out that the author of the Medium article “Don’t Fall In Love With Your Oppressor” has, in fact, taken up with Gabe, who she loves because he’s a goofy white dude, not in spite of it. Still, I’m considering that plot point a warning that Dear White People wants its characters to talk about a lot of subjects, and doesn’t mind shoehorning in bits of dialogue that don’t feel quite right but get the point across.
The most winning scene comes next, when Sam and Gabe reconcile following the rogue Instagram post, and Sam figures she might as well go public with Gabe since it’s out in the open anyway. She takes him to her Wednesday night ritual, a public viewing of Defamation, the DWP universe’s answer to Scandal. Defamation is equal parts loving homage and savage mockery of Shonda Rhimes’ flagship drama, complete with Scandal’s camera-flash title reveal, its emphasis on quasi-consensual interracial sex, and its fondness for Alias-style campy spy plots. (But, uh, Tony Goldwyn he ain’t.)
Gabe winds up squaring off with Reggie in another scene that somehow comes across as true and tin-eared at the same time. It feels too soon for Gabe’s awkward attempt at allyship, and I want him to be smart enough to understand that listening more than you talk is the cardinal rule in such a situation. (Then again, I also want him to understand the basic concept behind a social network and not feign ignorance when his “outing my relationship status” post results in the outing of his relationship status.) But their confrontation sets up what I hope will develop into a love triangle between Sam, the guy she’s supposed to be with on paper, and the one most receptive to her thoughts on Daenerys’s rise to power.
There’s yet another twist, when Sam is forced to reveal that the blackface party wouldn’t have happened if not for her direct intervention. She hacked into the Pastiche Facebook account and blasted out the invitation on the magazine’s behalf. It’s a bold move with a bittersweet result when she’s there to witness just how many people show up for the event in full “thug” regalia. What’s the point of canceling the event if there’s enough casual racism at Winchester to pack it to the rafters? Now it’s up to Sam to prove that, secret bae or no, she’s the right vessel to deliver the change Winchester so desperately needs.
- The episode, which Simien also directed, looks amazing. Like the film, it demonstrates his love of wide, symmetrical framing and elaborate tracking shots.
- I love the moment when Sam swaps her music from sensitive folk-rock to conscious hip hop just in time to walk by some black folks. That might be the episode’s most potent commentary on racial identity.
- Rashid: “Does every American show revolve around fellatio-related cliffhangers?” I’m telling y’all, Rashid GETS IT.
- Gabe, to Sam: “Are you trying to My Fair Lady me for your black friends?” Technically she’s trying to Love Don’t Cost A Thing you, but yeah.
- So do the kids only watch Defamation on Wednesday nights, or do they start with Sexy Disaster Hospital, then round out the evening with Homicide Conspiracy School?
- Lionel: “I guess I just don’t like the idea of telling someone else’s truth.” I get where this line comes from, but dude, that’s like the entire point of journalism.
- Be sure to read Ashley Ray-Harris’s lovely pre-air review.