Netflix’s “Dear White People” is an invitation, not a wedge.
The Netflix series “Dear White People” gives its characters the benefit of the doubt. There’s an episode detailing the rise and fall of a friendship between two women, acknowledging that some of the ways people change can be negotiated, and sometimes others just can’t. There’s an episode detailing a young man’s gradual coming-out, and the impossibility of acknowledging which lines can’t be crossed. Another episode thoughtfully follows a white guy negotiating a black space. Another episode examines the trappings of the “model-minority” label. Each narrative is handled deftly, with a keen awareness of their characters’ interiority, and in any other scenario, that fact would prove wholly unremarkable, but in this case it means everything because the characters in question are black.
The series dropped on Netflix early last Friday morning, after a campaign that’s been growing since the original film’s Sundance premiere in 2014. The movie, directed by Justin Simien, followed Samantha White (played by Tessa Thompson), as Sam and her peers navigated the realities of being black in an institution that doesn’t have their wellbeing in mind. As undergraduates at Winchester University (a fictitious Ivy League doppelgänger), a number of characters represent college archetypes (the dean’s son, Troy Fairbanks; a gay journalist, Lionel Higgins; an aspiring socialite, Colandrea “Coco” Connors), and upon the film’s initial release the reception was mostly warm. But irrespective of their final verdicts, most critics mirrored Justin Chang’s summation that even if the movie “ultimately feels modestly edgy rather than shocking or dangerous, ‘Dear White People’ nonetheless provokes admiration for having bothered to ask some of the hard questions without pretending to know any of the answers.”
The series, in contrast, follows parallel plot lines — the biracial Samantha White (now Logan Browning) still leads the titular campus radio show “Dear White People”; the conflict’s catalyst is still a highly attended blackface party held on campus. But this time, the depth and attention given to each character’s development is significant. Over the course of ten episodes, their stories are extracted and examined, until we’re left not with stereotypes or typecasts or megaphones, but human beings, complete with autonomy and dignity. “Dear White People” might not be the only series to travel a similar route this year (to say nothing of Netflix alone in the past two months), but the big difference here is that rather than acting as decorative pieces or conjoined tangents, people of color are given center-stage to grow and develop and figure their shit out.
And then there are the little things: the flourishing strings in episode four as Sam and Coco walk the university’s grounds for the first time; the renditions of Gabe’s worst-case fantasies, delivered in Godard-ian aplomb, as his relationship gets away from him a few episodes later. The series makes precise, articulate jabs at colorism, body-shaming, and race-baiting. Simien, who stayed on as the showrunner, knows his audience, and he tells them they’re worthy of being seen. These details support each narrative while insisting that everyone is worthy of self-transformation, no matter where they’re coming from. That how you’re seen and who you are can sometimes feel like wide, unnavigable chasms. When a semi-closeted Lionel apologizes to an out bartender for his stumbling awkwardness, the bartender smiles and sighs and tells him to calm down, because “I used to be you.” And when a character notes, moments before an incident with the police, that he’s “smart as shit,” it is promptly followed by another character wondering, “Who cares if you’re woke or not, if you’re dead?”
Even binge-watching the show, you can’t help but marvel at how every major character is individually, and separately, allowed to breathe. The show’s structure allows for that wiggle room, but it makes Simien’s project no less of a feat: he’s created a non-farcical show about young black folks in an academic setting, and no one is dancing, or drumming, and there isn’t a single sports venue present. While the American viewership at large may be perennially obsessed with a very specific conception of black friendship, the scope of their imagination is paltry at best. As Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, told the Times, “writing about ordinary black people is extraordinary. It’s absolutely its own form of advocacy.”
There’s life as it’s actually lived, and then there are our lives as screenwriters perceive them. “Dear White People” cradles a self-awareness of the rift between the two. Reggie, a tech-savvy character who later finds himself on the other end of a cop’s gun, notes that black people usually aren’t given a wealth of options; we get “cheap urban drama, or tragedy porn… and when they do accidentally give us a quality movie, they think that gives them a license to double down on that shit” (and in a winking sweep, that notion is compounded by Ikumi, the characters’ self-described “catch-all Asian friend”: “Yeah, it must really suck to only have two movies this month with people that look like you; try having the same two options since 2000 — all I got is The Joy Luck Club and Crouching Tiger”).
All the same, a lot of folks aren’t down with that sort of progress. Citing the series’ title alone, without having even watched five minutes of the very first episode, a campaign matriculated calling for a boycott of Netflix over the series. Immediately after the campaign surfaced, Simien noted that the pushback gave him some pause, but in an essay titled “Why did I name it “Dear White People?”, he wrote:
It’s not just that the suggestion of being lumped into a monolithic group is a new experience for some people, it’s the audacity of a black sissy daring to look them in the eye and say “I see you. From the fear in your belly to your rusted armor of anger, I see you. Because despite many institutional efforts to dissuade me I have found a way to see me, and thus see fit to place myself in a culture that had not previously made room for me to do so.
What Simien’s critics fail (or perhaps just don’t want) to see is that “Dear White People” isn’t a ten episode indictment against white folks and the wacky things that they do: it’s a story where they simply aren’t present at all. White people exist in the characters’ stories because white people exist in their actual worlds (a motif underlined by the series-long presence of Thane, a popular white classmate who drunkenly jumps from a roof and dies), but, by and large, they aren’t the axes around which their lives revolve. “Dear White People” tells the stories of black people. Very specific black people, who are very different from one another. The show begs rewatching for that notion alone. That anyone should mistake it for an attack on their sense of self is pretty telling, if hardly worth acknowledging.
But, then again, sometimes you’ve got to. Talking to a white buddy about the show a few days after its premiere, he admired the series’ premise, but couldn’t help but wondering about the logistics of the blackface party: he called it far-fetched. And a little ridiculous. And surely, he noted, a university so esteemed wouldn’t succumb to a thing like that, which made the whole thing a plot device, and a great one, but hardly rooted in reality.
Instead of pulling out my eyes and throwing them at him, I told him this story: a few summers ago, on a June afternoon, I found myself driving around a university campus in Texas. It was hot as fuck, and I wasn’t enrolled or anything, but I was visiting my boyfriend, who’d been living there at the time. I’d made it halfway across the main road when I saw a party spilling into the streets: a group of white boys, and some women, blasting Young Joc in baggy clothes. Some of them wore snapbacks. Most of them wore oversized shades. The crowd easily neared fifty or sixty outside their house alone, and a pair of black blow-up dolls sat propped in front of the doors.
Some days you can’t trust your senses, so I pulled over and watched them go at it for five minutes. But then five minutes turned into twenty. And twenty minutes turned into an hour. They brought out more floats, kegs, new DJs, and everything. They turned up the music and they turned it down again. One time, a police cruiser slowed in front of the building, but then the cops shouted something from their window and the kids shouted something back at them.
Eventually, the cops pulled onto the road, and the kids went right back at it. The whole time I sat watching them, I honestly didn’t think that anyone would’ve believe me if I’d told them about it.