DeRon Horton (Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix)

Like the best stories about college life, Dear White People leans hard into the idea of a university as an identity incubator. Though the practical value of higher education is an evergreen debate, almost no one questions the value of introducing young people to new ideas and granting them the freedom and autonomy to examine those ideas. That’s what makes Winchester a gift and a curse for its black students. Winchester is the environment that gestated the Pastiche party, but it’s also one of the few places Lionel Higgins would have the latitude to acknowledge his sexuality.

“Chapter II” focuses on Lionel and his journey to coming out as a gay man, and in doing so, allows writer-director Justin Simien to repurpose and upend every “I dabbled a little in college” joke you’ve ever heard. Instead of forging past the events of the pilot, “Chapter II” reframes the events through Lionel’s eyes. For him, the collective outrage around the Pastiche party provides a point of entry into Winchester’s black community, one he should feel naturally connected to, but doesn’t on account of his sexuality. Lionel’s the kind of kid for whom the term “queer” resonates on a gut level. His otherness encompasses his sexuality, but is also a thing unto itself. He’s just an odd duck, and he lets the world know it with a bushy Afro that’s more slothful than retro.

But Lionel isn’t a total social misfit. He’s formed an odd-couple kinship, almost a kind of mentorship with his roommate (and student council president hopeful) Troy. Not that Lionel would describe the relationship that way, since he spends a good bit of the episode beating off to the sounds of Troy’s sexual conquests, then fretting about the meaning of it all. His other social connection to Winchester comes through his involvement with a student newspaper, for which Lionel wrote a scathing dispatch from the Pastiche party. None of these people understand how journalism works, because editor Silvio thinks you’re supposed to rework stories after they’ve already run, and Lionel writes about the party but fails to mention his role in shutting it down.

For all his journalistic flaws, Silvio has a nose for news, or at least a well-calibrated gaydar. He challenges Lionel to examine his identity as a black gay man, a set of facts to which Lionel isn’t quite ready to agree. Sensing the ambiguity, Silvio invites Lionel to a party thrown by that gang of sexual anarchists known as the theater department. The episode feints in the direction of a fairly predictable story in which a gay guy in his questioning phase is turned out by a theater queen with amazing diction. But little about the episode plays out in a predictable way.

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Just when Lionel is on the verge of making a sex sandwich with partygoer Conner and his down-to-clown girlfriend Becca, he sees the ruse for what it is. Conner, who appears to watch a lot of “reality” porn, is using Becca as bait and cover for his same-sex attractions. It’s pretty undignified, and Lionel’s above it. Sure, he may be closeted. And yeah, he uses that big-ass Afro to hide in plain sight. But at least he’s not out here performing a sexual improv show called Whose Mouth Is It Anyway? Lionel realizes he doesn’t want to be a bad actor.

So Lionel comes out to Troy after finally agreeing to let Troy knock some floors off his ‘fro. The haircut scene is basically perfect, and I’m in love with how Lionel comes out. After a mealy-mouthed confession when Troy is out of earshot—one he could have easily denied later—Lionel repeats himself to Troy, who acknowledges what was said and keeps it moving. Troy’s reaction is the best kind of acceptance, with Troy neither shunning Lionel nor making a production of his lack of judgment. And then, in another quietly powerful act of affirmation toward Lionel, Troy cuts Lionel’s hair as sweet soul wafts in from the other room. Without even realizing it, Troy gives Lionel all the ingredients for the perfect masturbatory fantasy.

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This is the type of love story that I, as a black gay man, can never get enough of. Hell, sexuality aside, as a black man, I appreciate seeing images of black men sharing intimate moments, especially when they aren’t overtly sexual. The haircut scene reminds me of the closing moments of Moonlight, when Andre holds Chiron in the dark. It’s not explicitly sexual, but is somehow all the more sexy for it. Lionel might not be ready to label himself gay, but thanks to Troy, he definitely knows what setting he is. He’s a 2, and with a little determination and amyl nitrite, who knows? Maybe Lionel’s a power 2 someday. But what’s cool about this episode is how it made Lionel’s shame-free self-pleasure as more of a breakthrough than actually fooling around with Conner and Becca.

“Chapter II” doesn’t do much to push the plot forward, since it reexamines the Pastiche party and its aftermath through Lionel’s eyes. There’s so much overlap with the pilot, it’s almost as if the episodes were conceived as part of a season that wouldn’t drop all at the same time. (I didn’t watch the episodes back-to-back, but I might have been a little impatient if I had.) But “Chapter II” still feels worthwhile as an examination of how a different character is forced to examine his identity in the wake of the blackface party. And it’s a much more nuanced and interesting take on the Lionel character than the movie had room for, further justifying the decision to expand DWP into a series.

Stray observations

  • According to the prologue, racist Pastiche parties are a long running tradition, which is important information to have.
  • Guest starring as Dean Fairbanks is the actor with the world’s best name, Obba Babatunde. I wonder if his friends and family call him by his first and last name under all circumstances. Because I would do that.
  • Sam left a bread chunk trail leading back to her. She changed the password of the Pastiche Facebook account to her student identification number.
  • I’ll tell you what I didn’t love: the Windex line. It was already too precious when Silvio said it, and having Becca repeat it later was more than I could handle.
  • Found in Troy’s Google history: “Does giving your closeted roommate a haircut with your shirt off and The Softones playing make you a tease?” The answer: Kinda, yeah.
  • This episode also reminded me of a guy named Reggie I went to undergrad with. He had an enormous ‘fro and thick glasses freshman year, then cut it off over the summer and got contacts. He was so surprised and confounded by all the attention he was getting from girls, he started attending weekly counseling sessions with a pastor to help him navigate it. Ah, college.

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