Coming three years after the film of the same name, Dear White People the TV series immediately surpasses its source material. Creator Justin Simien revisits the film’s territory in his Netflix series, but the new format allows the show to dive into topics in a way the movie couldn’t. The original film was too preachy, too focused on educating white audiences, so much so that it left its black characters feeling like badly drawn caricatures created to prove a point. That’s because Dear White People the film was created to educate white people about racism and microaggressions. But Dear White People the Netflix series is more concerned with capturing the diverse realities of black existence while leaving blatant politics and history lessons in the background.
The series continues where the movie left off and looks at the same characters we last saw living in Armstrong/Parker, the historically black dorm at Winchester University. But the characters don’t feel the same; they’re much more fleshed out and have actual backstories. Each episode is focused on a particular student and their involvement with the events taking place on campus, allowing the writers to home in on specific narratives. Unlike some of its streaming platform colleagues that drag with their added time, Dear White People feels like it’s finally being given a chance to breathe.
The increased focus works to the show’s advantage, as Winchester University no longer feels like Any College in Any Place, America. Over the 10-episode run, the campus comes alive in a way most college movies cannot recreate. Dear White People mimics the communal feelings of A Different World, rather than the hypereducational soapbox feeling of shows like Black-ish or The Boondocks. Instead of politics, the desires, fears, and conflicts of Dear White People’s black characters take center stage. Issues that are typically internalized in the black community—colorism, interracial dating, the balance between rage and carefree black joy—aren’t addressed to teach white audiences about them.
Each character is given the space to explore these topics with a realistic sense of complexity. Samantha White, the protagonist of the movie, felt too perfect. She had no room to address her own status as a biracial woman and the privileges afforded her as she fought against darker-skinned students who didn’t share her views. At times, she came off like another tragic mulatto caricature, chosen to lead the movie because her light color would make her more palatable to white audiences. The series addresses this by focusing on its ensemble rather than individuals, turning Samantha into a character made up of imperfections and conflicting motivations. The series isn’t concerned with one-dimensional black characters that simply suffer at the hands of racism.
From the get-go, the show makes it clear what our ensemble is raging against: namely, the disturbing blackface party that ends the film. Dear White People isn’t trying to convince white audiences that racism exists. Instead, the show looks at the complicated ways racism affects black people both internally and externally. Coco Conners and Troy Fairbanks, reluctant villains in the film, are transformed by this new perspective. The movie only hints at what pitted them against Samantha, but the series takes time to dig into the origins of their respectability politics and internalized anti-blackness.
Barry Jenkins directs some of Dear White People’s most moving episodes, and the care with which he unravels vulnerable moments mirrors some of Moonlight’s best points. The series maintains a perfect balance between joy and trauma that exemplifies the duality of the black experience; its writing is sharp and contemporary. Even the moments of parody feel relatable as opposed to over-the-top. Dear White People is today’s black youth, in all its messy “I’ll lead a Black Lives Matter protest, but still watch The Cosby Show” glory.
White characters aren’t painted as horrific villains out to destroy our black heroes. Rather, they’re treated, well… like black characters usually are. They’re funny—they have some entertaining moments—but this isn’t their story. Even the show’s bully is played as an educated, sarcastic smartass rather than a monster. Dear White People doesn’t waste time creating tragic origin stories to explain or explore the racism of its white characters. The show would rather examine the impact of such racism on its black characters.
Simien maintains control of the show’s cinematography and mimics the visuals that made the movie so engaging: The comedic asides to the camera are still there, as are the painting-like midshots, which linger on a diverse group of black faces. Only now, the demand of the black faces staring back is clear: See us. See the various realities black people exist in; see the unique differences that exist for individual black people and stop representing them as caricatures or tokens. For all the conflict over the show being “anti-white,” the show isn’t focused on white people at all. In fact, if Sam were to discuss the topic on her radio show, she’d probably say, “Dear White People, black characters and black shows aren’t here for your educational benefit.”