Months before one frame of Dear White People ever streamed on Netflix, Justin Simien’s new series was the target of amusing outrage on Twitter. Butthurt folks of the Caucasian persuasion took to their accounts to tweet for a massive boycott of Netflix. How dare they create a TV show with this title, a title that had previously been used for the 2014 film upon which this show is based? According to such critics, it was reverse racism by golly and dagnabbit! Netflix and Simien responded in a way these complainers understood: They trolled the hell out of them.
Netflix’s response was apt, because Dear White People doesn’t have time for your shit. It couldn’t care less about your offense, and at times it seems to revel in it. In today’s climate, where satire can barely compete with the insanity of real life, Simien has crafted a take-no-prisoners approach to his comedic statements. He packs so much detail and information into each episode that multiple viewings are required to fully appreciate the work. In this first episode alone, there are several throwaway lines that fly off-the-cuff, only to return later to your mind like a boomerang. Dear White People is blissfully aware that it is a TV show. How else does one explain the “ethnic but non-threatening voice” of the narrator, the suddenly ubiquitous Giancarlo Esposito?
“The writers of this program are depending on [me] to explain things that they are too lazy to set up traditionally,” says the actor formerly known as Big Brother All-Migh-TEE from School Daze. This writer wishes he could hire Esposito to tell you that, back in 2014, this writer and Steven Boone covered the film version of Dear White People for our “Black Man Talks” series. We dug into the character-based minutiae of Simien’s debut feature, discussing many elements that carry forth into the ten chapters that make up this series. You should go read that, as it will tell you exactly what to expect from these recaps.
“Chapter I” 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.” We are at Winchester University, a Primarily White Institution (PWI) that was, three days prior, the site of a blackface-themed party thrown by the university’s humor magazine, Pastiche. Something of an institution itself, Pastiche turns out successful comedy writers for shows like Saturday Night Live. The Pastiche crew’s rationale for this party matches that of the aforementioned Twitter protestors — they named their party “Dear Black People” in response to the title of a campus radio show. Rather than have people showing up as Dr. Maya Angelou or the mathematically brilliant ladies from Hidden Figures, however, white partygoers showed up as every black stereotype they could conjure.
“That’s an actual black person,” says our narrator, after unsuccessfully trying to identify some of the partygoers’ costumes. That actual black person is joined by numerous other black people, including this episode’s subject, Samantha White (Logan Browning, taking over for Tessa Thompson). She’s recording the party, capturing the less-than-appreciative response of the party’s gatecrashers. “The hangover from this party is a motherfucker,” intones the narrator. The university’s spin doctors are similarly affected. This was a party that had should have been cancelled, yet somehow it was thrown.
After the party flashback, “Chapter I” explores Sam’s college life. She’s the creator of the call-in radio show “Dear White People,” where she offers advice on what not to do in the presence of one’s brown friends. It is she who utters Simien’s mission statement: “‘Dear White People’ is a misnomer,” she tells a caller. “My show is meant to articulate the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority.” These feelings include the numerous microaggressions Simien hilariously depicts in a quick montage. “What ARE you?” asks one perky young lady. “Someone about to slap the shit out of you!” Sam replied.
Actually, Sam is biracial. “You’re not Rashida Jones biracial,” says her BFF Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson). “You’re Tracee Ellis Ross biracial.” This is one of those boomerang lines I was talking about. It’s funny on the outset, but it came back to haunt me later. It got me thinking about the double-standard regarding how black (or not black) a biracial person may look. The line comes a few scenes after an allusion to the brilliant “Straight and Nappy” musical number in School Daze: At the monthly Black Caucus, Sam and the darker-hued Coco (Antoinette Robertson) get into it over good and bad hair. “Your natural hairdo is held together by bobby pins and prayer,” snaps Coco. “You should talk,” Samantha responds. “You have half of India’s GDP on your head!”
That Black Caucus meeting yields a reassessment of how righteously and unapologetically black Sam White is, after a surprise Instagram post puts her reputation as the voice of Winchester’s black militancy and pride at stake. “I hate when bae leaves,” the post reads, accompanied by a picture of Sam leaving some white guy’s apartment. That guy turns out to be Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), Sam’s “summer bae,” with whom we previously saw her having orgasmic sex. To quote Joelle, Summer Bae, “Looks like the white dude in the picture that comes with the frame.” When you’re the author of a piece entitled “Don’t Fall in Love With Your Oppressor: A Black Girl’s Guide to Dating at Winchester,” romancing a white guy gets a solid ten on the hypocrisy meter.
“Chapter I” is as much about Gabe as it is about Samantha. In the film version of Dear White People, Sam tells Gabe of her own discomfort with the white side of her family. It was a shockingly frank scene, buoyed by the notion that we’re hearing a perspective other narratives would never touch; in fiction, it’s always been the black side that brought out the shame. “Chapter I” shifts Sam’s discomfort to Gabe, but her desire to keep their relationship on the down low is more a matter of optics than shame. Any interpretation by the outside world is bound to be a binary one, an either/or proposition that overshadows its complexity. Even Simien’s framing of her explanation is purposefully guilty of this. “When I’m with him, it’s like a respite from everything,” she tells Joelle, as Simien positions her in front of a giant poster that reads “Missing: Black Culture” in big, bold letters.
Simien’s characterization of Gabe is ripe for multiple interpretations, and John Patrick Amedori plays him in a way that forces the viewer to draw conclusions that depend not only on what we’re seeing onscreen but the biases (implicit or not) we bring to the table. “Is he really this naïve?” I asked myself about his Instagram post. “Or is there a bit of vindictiveness at play here?” That question lingers during the episode’s big “Defamation Wednesday” set piece where, in a moment of defiance (or is it resignation?), Sam brings Gabe to the all-black Armstrong Parker house for an event denoted as “the epicenter of black campus life.”
Defamation is the hilarious show-within-a-show parody of Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal, complete with horny white president, steely black fixer, and her evil, cunning papa who, in this incarnation, is really a clone. Shoehorned into the viewing audience of brown people is Gabe’s solitary white face, a situation I have never seen onscreen except in prison movies. It’s a situation I’d wager most white viewers of this show haven’t experienced in real life, either. But I could identify with Gabe feeling all eyes on him; I’d be here all week describing the times I’ve been the only person of color somewhere.
Unfortunately, Gabe’s attempts to interact fall horribly flat. When pressed by Reggie (Marque Richardson), who has a crush on Sam, Gabe blurts out, “I don’t know how black people feel, but I’d like to know.” He then mistakenly assumes Reggie will respond with violence at this statement, a faux pas that sends Gabe sprinting toward the exit. He calls Sam out for not defending him, and she responds with a “now you know how I feel on this campus”–style retort.
Later, Sam is confronted by Lionel (DeRon Horton), a reporter for the campus newspaper who says that tomorrow’s paper will reveal her role in the party. “I don’t like the idea of telling someone else’s truth,” he says. Empowered, Sam takes to the airwaves: “My jokes don’t make it unsafe for you to walk the streets. But yours do,” she tells the audience. “When you mock and belittle us, you enforce an existing system. Before this party, a POC couldn’t mention racism without it being seen as crying wolf. Look, I sent the party invite. It was fascinating to see what was under the surface when you were allowed to suspend your polite white liberalism. I considered it a sociological experiment. And guess what? You proved my point.”
Sam then apologizes to Gabe. He’s part of her truth, optics be damned.