Dear White People
“Chapter V” begins with James Baldwin and ends with a credit for Moonlight director Barry Jenkins. Since the director’s name appears at the end of each show, rather than the beginning, viewers are blissfully unaware who’s behind the camera. But when Jenkins’s name popped up, everything I had seen in “Chapter V” made sense. This is a fantastic episode, a very talky one that meanders leisurely before ending with a powerful coda that left me emotionally stunned.
One of the valid criticisms of Dear White People is that it occasionally has its characters speak its themes rather than work them more intrinsically into the show. I see this as a feature, not a bug; after all, the show is named after a radio program in which lead character Samantha White verbally airs her grievances. But when the show does the same thing outside of the radio program, however, it sometimes comes off as a clunky device.
But Jenkins depicts these moments with a visual language that makes them pop. In the early scenes of the episode, he and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron play the camera like a musical instrument. When Reggie (Marque Richardson), this chapter’s subject, walks through rooms at a party, the camera performs a visual glissando, smoothly sliding through rooms while observing its subject from afar. A nighttime walk-and-gab session between friends becomes a fourth-wall-breaking, choreographed dance, which the camera observes from an unusual though perfect angle. When the show reaches its traumatic climax, Jenkins and Waldron abandon the wide canvas they’d been working with, infusing the frame with a terrifying, suffocating claustrophobia. It’s masterful work.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced”: This James Baldwin quote was often repeated to Reggie by his dad during Reggie’s childhood. Reggie is an IT major, a wiz in his Data Structures class, and, along with Sam, the most vocally militant of the Armstrong-Parker residents. So when Reggie met Sam, it appeared to be a perfect match. “Reggie, often a lone soldier on campus, had finally found his comrade-in-arms,” our narrator tells us. But as we’ve seen, Sam has had other romantic plans, first with Troy and currently with Gabe, the guy her friends call “White Bae.”
Platonically, however, Reggie and Sam work perfectly together. Reggie’s latest app, a campus-wide rating program called “Woke or Not Woke,” was inspired by Sam’s last radio show, the one where she autotuned Coco. “You Steve Jobs-ed me!” Sam playfully says. Currently, Sam is the wokest person, according to early voting, but Reggie is number four. “When this app goes wide, I’m coming for your title!” he tells the reigning Wizard of Wokeness.
Reggie called this meeting of his crew — Sam, Joelle, and Al — to discuss the next steps in “the revolution.” Our narrator helpfully explains: “As the outrage over the blackface party turned to campus-wide apathy, Reggie started looking for ways to reignite the revolution. What Reggie didn’t realize was that the revolution would find him.” In short order, “Chapter V” turns into a term paper entitled “How I Spent My Saturday at Winchester.” Sam has concrete plans with Gabe, who texts her in the middle of Reggie’s app meeting. “What are you and White Bae fixin’ to do?” asks Al. “Go on a hike just for the Instagram?” Reggie looks wistfully at Sam, barely containing his feelings. “Your app’s brilliant,” Sam says, before exiting for much of the episode.
As a first stop, Joelle suggests visiting the African Student Union’s “Cook-In,” so called because barbecue grills are banned on campus. My guess is that this ban occurred after someone at Armstrong-Parker started an Uncle Gus-sized fire on a grill, burning down half the campus foliage in service to some kick-ass ribs.
While Al and Joelle look disgustedly at the crappy potato salad and veggie dogs, Reggie stands in the other room watching Dereca, Set Me Straight, a spoof of Iyanla: Fix My Life. Dereca is a former Yelp reviewer who got banned for using too many curses in a children’s theater review. “And I’ve read half of one Iyanla Vanzant book!” she says. “So I’m qualified!” Based on her show, Dereca is as good at setting people straight as Miss Cleo was at predicting your future.
Since this party’s a bust, Reggie offers up suggestion number two: a free tailgate party to honor literally fallen football hero Thane Lockwood. “It’s free because they suck!” Joelle says. Al swipes a bottle of the stereotypical-yet-delicious Shasta grape soda, which he cradles like a baby once everyone is outside. They begin one of their two walk-and-talks through campus that Jenkins creatively shoots. This first is about Sam’s White Bae. “Reggie, are you cyberstalking Sam?” asks Rashad, a Kenyan student the gang picked up at the ASU fiasco. Reggie feigns ignorance, but this ignites a discussion about biracial Sam dating a white boy.
“You share panties with her practically, so what do you think?” Al says to Joelle. “I’m not so sure that I’d let a white man colonize my body, and I didn’t think Sam would either,” Joelle responds. “But if she’s happy, I’m happy.” Reggie senses how half-hearted Joelle sounds, and calls her on it. As the only non-African-American in this group, Rashad innocently asks, “In American culture, black men seem to be obsessed with white women. What is all this about?”
“Anal!” Joelle, Al, and Reggie say in unison.
At the terrible tailgate party, Reggie’s crew jokes about his militant stance and conspiracy theories. Suddenly, Troy and Coco run up on Reggie. “So I’m not woke?” Troy asks angrily, holding up the app Coco christens “Wokemon Go.” “The people have spoken,” Reggie says dismissively. “Maybe it’s because you betrayed us for your buddy Kurt.” Troy storms off in a huff, only to be replaced by Akumi, who integrates herself into Reggie’s group as “your catch-all Asian friend.”
The crew’s third stop is the movie theater, where they acquire Lionel before hate-watching the new Sanaa Lathan movie Oh No, She Didn’t! It’s an urban drama about horny lawyers. The post-movie walk through campus is one of Jenkins’s tour de force moments: Staring directly at the viewer, Al, Joelle, and Reggie complain about the state of black cinema. The scene has a West-Side-Story-by-way-of-Spike-Lee vibe, with each strolling speaker rotating into position to vent to us about Tarantino, Hollywood, and the N-word. Even Akumi gets to strike, pointing out that, since 2000, Asians have only had Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Joy Luck Club as positive cinematic representations. The scene is admittedly preachy, but the actors and the filmmakers make it sing.
Jenkins’s second tour de force moment is a heartbreaking showcase for Marque Richardson. The last stop for the group is a house party thrown by Reggie’s white friend, Addison. This trip comes after Joelle issues Reggie some tough love about Sam being with Gabe. Reggie thanks her, then suggests they get “white-girl wasted.” Addison’s party is the perfect place for that, even if his house has a lawn jockey out front.
Everything starts off well, with Reggie treating Drunk Trivial Pursuit the way Rosie Perez slayed Jeopardy in White Men Can’t Jump. But then, a rap song comes on and Addison starts singing Dr. Dre’s favorite N-word. “Don’t say that,” Reggie warns. Addison asks why. Reggie explains. Addison says he’s not a racist, and Joelle says that’s not what Reggie was saying. Kurt shows up to add fuel to the fire. Joelle once again explains to Addison that they know he’s not racist, just that Reggie has asked him not to say that word.
As this happens, the shots get tighter and closer, ratcheting up the tension. Soon, Addison and Reggie are tussling, which leads to the arrival of the campus police. Zoning in on Reggie, one cop asks if he goes to Winchester. Several people, including Addison, say that Reggie’s a student. The cop asks for Reggie’s ID, which he refuses to provide because the cop didn’t ask for Addison’s as well.
Then the cop pulls a gun.
Dear White People is careful to show that all the students, white and black, are outraged by this. But the camera returns to Reggie, who, faced with death, hands his wallet to the cop. By now, the frame is so tight both parties can no longer fit on the screen; it’s the visual equivalent of a suffocation. Eventually, the cop puts his gun down and leaves.
In a state of shock, Reggie returns to his apartment. As Sam bangs on the other side of the door with concern, Reggie sits pressed against it, still in shock. Finally, he bursts into tears, turning his tearstained face toward the camera for the show’s trademark final glance.