“Dear White People” — A sophisticated commentary
Nicholas Ottone | Thursday, August 31, 2017
“Dear White People is a misnomer. My show is meant to articulate the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority.” Although said by character Sam White about her in-show radio program, this statement could easily apply to Justin Simien’s brilliantly satirical Netflix series, which showcases the perspectives of black students at a predominantly white, elite university. By expertly mixing episodic stories with season-long arcs while inserting incisive character-based jabs at race relations, Simien crafts a series driven by character rather than message, an entertaining rarity that shines as brightly as its characters.
Sparked by a campus blackface party, “Dear White People” chronicles the reactions of various black students, all of whom hold differing perspectives on race. Sam White (Logan Browning), a radical biracial organizer, rails against “the opposition” on her radio show while secretly dating Gabe (John Amedori), her white Media Studies TA. Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), a closeted reporter, desperately searches for the truth behind the party and his own identity. Meanwhile, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the Dean’s son, runs for student body president under a message of unity, moderating his own reaction to appease white voters and his father. Coco Connors (Antoinette Robertson), Sam’s foil in many ways, grasps for power through Troy, seeking to rise above her impoverished childhood and the colorism that has held her back.
The ensemble cast of “Dear White People” is an absolute treat. Horton underplays the series’ larger personalities well, and Robertson is an early highlight — weaponizing Simien’s sharp, barbed dialogue. The “Rashomon”-like structure emphasizes the individual personalities of each character through intense focus and inspiring empathy, thereby undermining any stereotypes previously held by the audience. Throughout the season, Simien constantly seeks new perspectives on issues, sometimes literally as he replays scenarios for different characters. Despite its button-pushing title, this show truly strives for a well-informed, honest conversation about race in America and seeks to break down the barriers to discussion.
At its heart, “Dear White People” is a college show, obsessed with identity and the fascinating contradictions hidden within every person, appropriate considering the search for identity typical of collegiate life. Although didactic at times, the dialogue illuminates character and message in equal measure, highlighting subjects such as colorism, sexuality and white privilege. These heavier moments are counterbalanced by provocative one-liners, bounced about by a game ensemble. Filmed like an indie movie, the visual style remains relatively stable, occasionally giving way to flights of cinematic fancy (as in Gabe’s episode, where he imagines reality in the style of blaxploitation films) or prolonged sequences of wordlessness (as in Lionel’s stint at a theater party, which takes advantage of Horton’s incredibly expressive face).
The strongest entry of the ten-episode season is Chapter V, which centers around Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), an activist and computer whiz. Directed by Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” fame, the episode follows Reggie and other black students as they walk around campus and talk. It showcases the show’s impressive bench of supporting characters and deftly builds upon existing narrative strands to illuminate Reggie’s psychology. The episode culminates in a house party, which comfortably slides from drunken trivia to dancing and then, surprisingly, a fight about the n-word. When the police arrive, the show, normally so talkative and quick, slows to a halt; quiets to a whisper. The officer draws his gun. We see the confidence in Reggie’s eyes displaced by mortal terror. “Dear White People” portrays this event with startling reality, delivering on the topicality promised by evocations of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin in a chilling monologue in the first episode. Yet the beautifully developed, empathetic groundwork of the series delivers this horror with more startling immediacy.
Every episode of the first season ends with its main character breaking the fourth wall and staring straight into the camera. We have watched their world rebuild and crumble while they struggle with questions of identity. Now, the characters implore us to look through our own eyes at the mess we have made. “Dear White People” is an eminently watchable series that provokes laughter and thought in equal measure, quickly making it one of the most memorable shows of 2017.
5 out of 5 Shamrocks