Television often has a habit—a trend, almost—of haphazardly including a token minority character to offset the monochrome cast. It's the easiest way to declare diversity, as well as the casting equivalent of claiming you have a black friend. Aside from how lazy, isolating, and offensive it is, this stunt also promotes the idea that there's only one way to be black—because, let's face it, most of these characters are typically the same. Netflix's Dear White People, however, knows that we're different.
It's one of the many reasons why this satirical comedy—Justin Simien's follow-up to his smart 2014 film of the same name—feels so refreshing, necessary, and good. It understands us in a way that the vast majority of television, film, and books don't—and it uses this understanding not to educate white people but to provide a mirror for ourselves and give us a space to laugh along with the ridiculousness. We empathize with these characters, who are trying to navigate the shark-infested waters of being a person of color in majority-white spaces.
It also understands the layers of racism and microaggressions: It isn't just about being called a "nigger" or having a cop pull a gun on you—though these events are in the series, because they're in our lives. It's also about the smaller, shitty moments that pile up: When a professor asks if anyone with a "special connection" to slavery wants to lead the discussion, as the white students all glance toward the one black student in a room, or a coach confusing a black student for the black athlete on his team. Or a white woman touching a black man's Afro, while saying he looks like Wiz Khalifa. These moments within the series are often played, simultaneously, for laughs and devastation: It's funny, because we've been there and know how utterly ridiculous these microaggressions are, and it's devastating because we've been there and know that how hurtful it was.
It's fitting, then, that the catalyst of Dear White People is a blackface party thrown by the campus humor magazine. When you keep remarking on these "smaller" racist incidents and comments but are repeatedly told that it's in your head, there's almost a sense of satisfaction in the proof that you're right—that it's actually a big fucking deal. Racism isn't, as one character says, "the kind of thing that only happened in the 50s or in BuzzFeed articles," but it's here, now: It's countless white kids (your peers!) donning blackface paint to mock your culture and doing so freely, without a second thought or worry, because they know that they are safe in this world.
Of course, this satisfaction isn't satisfaction at all but a crushing realism. This party kicks off a chain of events—understandable anger on one side, condescending "who cares?" on the other—that snowballs as the ten episodes progress, getting increasingly thorny and dangerous. While the film was brilliant, what makes the television show even better is that it allows Simien and his writers ample time to explore multiple angles and viewpoints, to play with length and fuck with the general expectations of sitcom episodes. (The directing is also key here, and one of the most memorable episodes is directed by Moonlight's Barry Jenkins.)
Each episode picks a singular character's focus (some get more than one), but sometimes they look at the same thing: A scene from one episode can overlap with a scene from another, which allows us to view one event through multiple eyes. Occasionally narrated by Giancarlo Esposito, the season tells a fully fleshed out story—it's no coincidence the episodes are referred to as "chapters"—and it's so thoroughly engaging that it's near impossible to stop once you dive in. (I watched the ten episodes in two chunks, pausing only because one brutal episode required a lengthy processing-emotions-and-drinking-beer break.)
The show is beautifully character-driven, weaving through romantic and platonic and unrequited relationships, while also highlighting those aforementioned multitudes of blackness. There's Sam (Logan Browning), the mixed-race protagonist who possesses a combination of anger, sadness, intelligence, and wary optimism. She has the added burden of overcompensating for the part of her that isn't black, and overcompensating for the part of her that's dating—sometimes guiltily—a white man (John Patrick Amedori), whose viewpoint is also explored. Lionel (DeRon Horton) doesn't just have to figure out his place as a black introverted nerd but also as a black gay man—plus, as a journalist, he's simultaneously in the middle of things while also separated on the sidelines.
The ambitious Coco (Antoinette Robertson) is often the punching bag for jokes about whether she's woke or not, and while she has her future figured out, she can't quite figure out her current place in the world and in the black community. Troy (Brandon P. Bell, reprising his role from the film) is the dean's son who feels pressure to not just be black, but "Obama Black": toned down, palatable to white people, acceptable as a politician, and "proof" that there are "good ones." Reggie (Marque Richardson) is one of the smartest kids on campus but is often angry—for good reason—and has a hard time knowing when it's time to take a break from marching, lest he get burned out. A friend has to remind him that "sometimes being carefree and black is an act of revolution," and as the series continues, it becomes clear that sometimes a television show can be an act of revolution as well.
All of these characters are honest and multi-dimensional, tasked with navigating the gap between how they see themselves and how others see them, while constantly code-switching throughout the day. They're also fully aware of their contradictions in a specific way central to our culture: admitting to secretly streaming The Cosby Show, raging against Apple's slave labor while scrolling through an iPhone. Dear White People is very much about our culture—it's not a show made with white people's comfort in mind, nor should it be—which is what makes it so remarkable and affecting. And it's not just the heavy stuff, like a discussion on the fine line between assimilation and self-preservation, but it's also the lighter things: differentiating between "Rashida Jones biracial" and "Tracee Ellis Ross biracial" or casually mentioning an oft-forgotten moment in Brandy's history.
Dear White People is full of specificities, references, and utter realness that you didn't know you needed, so much so that it can catch you off guard, like stumbling across a pitcher of water and suddenly realizing you've been thirsty for decades.
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