Dear White People
The last shot of “Chapter II” elicited an emotional response from me I did not expect, though perhaps I should have. The subject of this episode is Lionel Higgins, the character who resonated most with me in the movie version of Dear White People. He was superbly played in that incarnation by Tyler James Williams, and here, he’s played by newcomer DeRon Horton, who merges Williams’s comic hesitancy with the emotional reserve of a silent film actor. It took some time for me to get used to new actors in these familiar roles, but Horton won me over with the subtle physicality of his performance in “Chapter II.” I watched several of Horton’s scenes without sound, and I still felt every note he played. He’s extraordinary, and Lionel’s quest to find self-acceptance choked me up.
Though Lionel is battle-scarred by his life experiences, it is he who leads the revolt to dismantle the Pastiche blackface party. “Lionel wasn’t always a revolutionary,” our narrator says. “Don’t let the Afro fool you.” About that Afro — it’s a point of contention with me. Lionel’s cinematic Afro was much bigger, more unruly, and more impressive than his Netflix version. Hell, the poster for the film prominently featured it! So when Lionel claims his natural hairstyle is “gaining sentience” in this episode, it’s the only unbelievable moment in his performance. But I’m nit-picking, or Afro-picking as it were; Lionel’s ’do will pay big dividends by fade out.
Like the adolescent version of me, Lionel is seen as a possibly gay weirdo by his own people. This gives him a bit of a nervous complex around black folks, making his assignment to the all-black Armstrong-Parker House nightmarish. “It’s not that Lionel was afraid of black people,” the narrator informs us. “Just the ones that reminded him of high school.” Cut to Lionel back in the day, dressed as Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. “What the hell are you supposed to be?” one classmate asks. “Is that a girl’s comb on your face?” When Lionel explains that Geordi’s mask indicates that he is blind, the classmate asks, “So he can’t see how gay he looks?!”
The words “gay” and “faggot” get thrown around as insults several times in this episode, from the mean classmates to the black barber who curses out a fellow barber for sending a gay man to his chair. Director Justin Simien shoots much of the episode from Lionel’s perspective, so each utterance stings more than it usually does. Viewers don’t know Lionel’s sexual orientation at this point, so one wonders if his unusual discomfort around black men stems from his own feelings of not measuring up to the levels of machismo that society impresses on him. That pressure is not just felt by black men, of course, though it seems that black men feel it at its maximum weight.
Ultimately, injustice causes Lionel to grow a spine and approach several members of the Black Student Caucus when he reads the Pastiche party invite. (The invite flashes briefly on the screen, and it’s worth pausing Netflix just to read it. It begins, “For all those who need to free their inner Negro from oppression …”) Armed with a band of brothers on the same mission, Lionel crashes the party. Just before he does so, someone looks at a picture of a white girl dressed like Nicki Minaj and christens her “Nicki Mi-hell-nah!”
Based on the exposé Lionel writes for the school paper, he quickly becomes BMOC in Anderson-Parker. He’s called the “next Ta-Nehisi Coates” and he’s asked to sit at several tables. Lionel chooses his roommate Troy’s table. Troy is the son of Winchester’s dean and a leading member of CORE, one of the Black Student Caucus subgroups defined so hilariously in “Chapter I.” In case you’ve forgotten which one CORE is, it’s the one with the Buppies.
Troy and his Republican — I mean “fiscally conservative” — friend laud Lionel’s article. “You’re gonna be knee-deep in pussy,” Troy tells him. His GOP pal agrees: “Nothing pulls pussy around here like prose well-penned.” Something is hella wrong with that unbelievable statement! Something is also journalistically wrong with Lionel’s front-page story. According to his editor, Silvio, “it’s the biggest story of the day. It doesn’t mean it’s well-written.” No punany for you, Lionel!
On the other hand, there’s too much for Troy. Being his roommate subjects Lionel to the daily soundtrack of Troy and his conquests banging on the other side of the dorm room wall. Simien’s camera circles Lionel’s room in each of these scenes, giving us the lay of the land while the lay of the day occurs offscreen. The one time we are visually privy to Troy’s romps, it unfolds like a Times Square peep show: The walls suddenly rise up, and there’s Troy going at it with some woman. Lionel’s masturbatory fantasy crops the woman completely out of the frame, focusing on Troy’s inhumanly muscular torso.
Back at the newspaper, the out and gay Silvio assumes Lionel is also gay. “Where’s the intersectionality in your article?” he complains. Lionel responds to Silvio’s assumption by saying, “I really don’t subscribe to those kinds of labels.” “Those labels keep people in Florida from drinking Windex,” Silvio says. “You need to find your label! I’m a Mexican-Italian, gay, vers, top, otter pup.” “I don’t know what any of that means,” Lionel replies.
“Let me guess,” Silvio continues. “You’re in your ‘crush on your straight roommate’ phase.” Lionel says no, but we know the truth — we had a front-row seat at Troy’s stage debut on Masturbate Theater. “How can you hope to arrive at a truth when you can’t find your own?” Silvio asks. Then, he invites Lionel to a speakeasy party run by the theater kids. “Lots of labels,” he says. “Come by and drink some Windex!”
Committed to finding his label, Lionel embarks on his mission. (Watch how Horton, after nervously surveying the party, physically steels his courage by stiffening his posture.) A men’s room visit puts him at the communal next to a theater major named Connor. Lionel looks at Connor’s package, raising an eyebrow in approval, but immediately chickens out when Connor returns his gaze. He flees the bathroom like a bat out of hell.
Unfortunately, Lionel forgot his cell phone, which is now in Connor’s possession. This forces Lionel into a conversation with Connor and his roommate/friend with benefits Becca. Connor tells Lionel he doesn’t believe in heteronormative labels. The duo invite Lionel back to their place, where Becca commits a venial sin of privilege: She touches Lionel’s hair without permission. Horton plays his exasperated, silent reaction to this so brilliantly, I had flashbacks of my own hair-related, touchy-feely dramas. Back then, I wanted to hide mousetraps in my braids for uninvited fingers. Eventually, I just started shaving my head, an idea that Troy had suggested to Lionel earlier.
The comically botched ménage à trois at Connor’s place feels a bit problematic, but it ties into the episode’s theme. The scene is played for laughs, but it comes at the expense of the horrible acting job Connor and Becca do in their role-playing with Lionel, rather than Connor’s own revealed homosexuality. As theater majors, they’re clearly D students; Lionel sees right through them, giggling so much that his own curious arousal dissolves. This is the moment he embraces his label. “You don’t need the wingwoman,” he tells Connor. “You’re obviously just into guys. And Becca, I don’t know what you’re getting out of this.” Becca storms out, yelling that labels “keep people in Florida from drinking Windex!”
Meanwhile, a programmer admirer of Silvio’s has hacked into the dean’s computer to find Sam’s interview revealing her role in the Pastiche party. He demands Lionel run with the scoop, which leads to a replay of the “Chapter I” scene between Sam and Lionel. This time, we get to hear her response to Lionel’s line about feeling bad for telling someone else’s truth: “Journalism’s gonna be a big challenge for you.”
While Sam’s on the radio revealing her truth, Lionel takes a post-coital Troy up on his haircut offer. Lionel tells a shirtless Troy about his theater party experience, and when Troy asks if Becca was hot, Lionel pauses before outing himself. “Troy, I’m gay,” he says. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to say that.”
“What did you say?” asks Troy, who had been out of earshot.
Here’s where the show once again upended my nervous expectations. Lionel repeats himself for Troy’s benefit. After a brief “oh,” Troy shrugs it off. Still shirtless, Troy cuts Lionel’s hair. Simien presents this as an act of sensuality set to the Softones’ forgotten 1973 soul-jam classic, “My Dream.” Lionel has an unobstructed view of Troy’s chiseled torso, which is intercut with falling hair and the onanistic glee of Lionel’s later remembrance of the moment. The last shot is of Horton’s face, flush with the afterglow of finding his label.