‘Dear White People’ Takes a Panoramic — and Suitably Complex — View of Campus Racial Tensions

It’s one thing to examine society. It’s a whole other puzzle to try and change it.

Dear White People, the Netflix series based on Justin Simien’s 2014 film of the same name, opens with a James Baldwin quote: “The paradox of education is that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” But as the black students of the fictional Winchester University learn over the course of the first season’s ten episodes — streaming as of Friday — it’s one thing to examine society. It’s a whole other puzzle to try and change it.

The series centers on a sadly familiar collegiate incident, a “blackface party” hosted by the white editors of a satirical campus magazine called Pastiche. When film major Samantha White (Logan Browning) finds out, she uses her platform as the host of a college radio station to draw attention to the party. Soon, the various factions of Winchester’s student body are embroiled in the conflict, which seeps into the students’ personal lives in ways the show nimbly teases out. Unsurprisingly, Sam and her friends get little support from the school’s administration, which is more interested in soothing its wealthy (white) donors than its distressed (black) students.

Like the fourth season of Arrested Development, Dear White People takes a non-linear approach to its storytelling method. Most episodes circle back to the scene of the crime — the party — at some point, and we often revisit the same conversations and events from different characters’ perspectives. It’s a clever format in general, but it works particularly well for this series; the show introduces its cast on a relatively superficial level before delving deeper into their lives one by one. The narrative technique forces the viewers to acknowledge our own assumptions about these characters, and to appreciate the ways in which personal and political issues are inextricably bound. Sam may be the voice of outrage for her fellow black students, but she happens to be dating a white guy named Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), who’s woke enough but who poses inevitable complications for Sam’s social life when their previously under-wraps relationship gets out.

The format also fosters a real sense of connection between the viewer and the characters; it’s as if we’re being let into their dorm rooms for a series of one-on-one, getting-to-know-you sessions after the co-eds leave the common room at the end of the day. After a so-so first episode, subsequent episodes turn our attention to Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), a diminutive, bespectacled reporter for the campus newspaper who’s only slightly conflicted about his sexuality; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell, reprising his role from the film), the student body president and golden-boy son of the dean who secretly smokes pot in his bathroom; Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson), a prim sorority type who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and is determined to leave it behind; and Reggie Green (Marque Richardson, who also appeared in the film version), Sam’s ex-boyfriend and a fellow campus radical who plasters his dorm-room walls with photos of the Black Panthers.

Green is the subject of a particularly powerful episode, directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, that comes halfway through the season and marks a turning point for the characters. The episode takes place over a lazy Saturday, during which Reggie and a couple friends spend the day wandering around campus trying to find something to do; Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine) reminds Reggie, who’s itching to do something about the rising racial tensions on campus, that sometimes it’s a radical act just to take time for yourself, to spend a chill Saturday with friends. When the evening ends in tragedy, it’s a stunning reminder that something as simple as a carefree weekend is easier for some kids than others, and it sadly proves Joelle’s point.

Like MTV’s Sweet/Vicious, about a pair of co-ed vigilantes avenging their fellow students’ sexual assaults, Dear White People is a tale of collegiate life that filters typical campus concerns (sex, parties, academic pressure, etc.) through the lens of social justice. As stylish as the series looks — the leafy, Ivy League setting is awash in low, seductive lighting, like the promise of a golden future — nothing’s flattened out or simplified. Simien and his fellow writers depict the campus tensions in all their messiness, without trying to smooth over the rough edges (and it’s basically all rough edges).

The most relevant and spot-on observation in Dear White People is the reaction of the Pastiche bros, who see Sam’s crusade as just another opportunity for mockery — and who have consciously blinded themselves to the impact of their “comedy” on its targets. That stubborn determination to declare your words and actions all in the name of good fun — and to dig deeper into your ignorance the more pushback you get — rings all too true. And as Dear White People demonstrates so effectively, the only roadblock to progress bigger than white people’s willful refusal to understand are the institutions that instinctively come to their defense.

 

Dear White People Season 1 lands on Netflix Friday, April 28.