Black History Month: Dear White People

TV recommendations seem to be as popular a part of small talk as the weather and traffic patterns. People tend to recommend hour-long dramas, but what I want are 20- or 30-minute comedies, something funny, smart, and thoughtful. The Netflix series Dear White People, based on the movie of the same name, is all those things. If we’re talking and we’ve covered how rainy it’s been and how crowded the Tube is, expect me to bring up this show.

dearwhitepeople

The show picks up right where the movie left off — on an Ivy League college campus, following the lives of four black students in a predominantly white, affluent school. [Spoilers for the movie ahead] In the movie, conflicts between the black and white students had come to a head in a blackface party thrown by the school’s satirical newspaper (similar to National Lampoon). The TV show opens with the members of the various black student groups trying to figure out how best to deal with that party — keep the momentum going on a discussion about racism on campus, or try to move on?

There are 10 episodes, and in each of the first 4, we follow a character from their point of view: Sam (Logan Browning, replacing Tessa Thompson from the movie), Lionel (DeRon Horton, taking Tyler James Williams’ place), Troy (Brandon P. Bell), and Coco (Antoinette Robertson, in the role Teyonah Parris originated). Sam hosts a radio show in which she tells white people all about the microaggressions they can just stop with right now, and she also co-leads the most progressive of the school’s black student unions — while dating a white guy, to her embarrassment. Lionel wrote about the blackface party for the school newspaper and is finding his writing voice. He’s also coming to accept that he’s gay — and in love with his roommate, Troy. Troy is the golden boy, son of the dean, new student body president, destined for greatness. He’s also smoking weed on the sly, stringing Coco along, and barely holding himself together under the weight of his father’s (and his community’s) expectations. Coco didn’t exactly get short shrift in the movie, but she’s allowed much more to work with here, in a longer running time. She’s from the southside of Chicago, earned a scholarship to this school, and desperately wants the love of a good man and the life of a well-to-do person, and she’s sure she’s found both in Troy, so why isn’t she happy?

Creator Justin Simien directed about half the episodes, but the others are helmed by different directors. Each episode begins with the dry humor of Giancarlo Esposito’s narration, and the general style and rhythm is the same across the episodes, but the directors do add their own touches. The fifth episode, which sets in motion all the action of the rest of the season, was beautifully directed by Barry Jenkins, who is most famous for directing Moonlight (but also, have you seen his Medicine for Melancholy? so good!). Here, the way he shows the party, I felt right in the middle of it, which made what happens after feel all the more shocking. In the sixth episode, Nisha Ganatra recreates scenes from Ingmar Bergman and Spike Lee movies (okay, I had to look up the Bergman one). It’s good to see a show have enough breathing room to allow for that kind of addition; in a lesser show the scenes would have been played without that extra layer of creativity.

The writing is wonderful; the in-jokes feel lived in, the pop culture references are rapid-fire, the characters nearly believably college-aged in how they talk. The deep subjects of the show — microaggressions and outright racist abuse against black people by white people, colorism within the black community, the role of affirmative action in the 21st century, working to change the system from within versus smashing it to pieces, not to mention more personal topics like sexual orientation, family duty and pressure, and the intricacies of friendship — are dealt with comprehensively but never heavily. Did I mention it is funny as hell? At least once an episode I had to rewind because I’d been laughing too hard at the previous line to hear the next one.

The writing is in good hands with this cast, who give strong performances that incorporate the subtleties of each character and scene. I especially enjoyed Horton’s wide-eyed approach to easing himself out of Lionel’s shyness, and the way Robertson lets slip Coco’s control of her pain in little flashes that hurt all the more for how quickly she clamps down again.

I’m going to stop here and assume you’ve already abandoned this post in favor of looking the show up on Netflix already. If not, what are you doing? Get out of here. You have the ensemble show of the year to get watching.

 

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