In its first season, Justin Simien’s college drama Dear White People, about black students enrolled at a mostly white college, pulls off a feat that eludes a lot of bigger, showier programs: It creates a self-contained, detailed, faintly dreamlike world that partly mirrors our own, then lets us wander around in it. It doesn’t just have a setting and a story, it has a philosophy and a vision of life. This is so rare in any art form that the show’s less-than-subtle aspects (and there are many) feel like features rather than bugs.
The setting is a predominantly African-American dorm on the campus of an Ivy League school, Winchester University. The black students represent a small percentage of the student body. Because so many of them hail from middle-class backgrounds (and at least one is biracial) they’re caught in a series of identity vises, constantly pushed to prove that they’re definitely this and not that. Their blackness alienates them from the white majority (the school has an African-American dean, played by Obba Babatundé, but he’s aligned with the Establishment).
The word “label” comes up a lot in casual conversations. A caller to a campus radio show insists “Race is a social construct,” and this show is as likely to confirm that sentiment as it is to deny it. The conclusion always depends on who’s doing the ruminating at that moment, and what’s at stake for them. It would be a mistake, I think, to describe Dear White People mainly as a show about race relations, though that subject is certainly on its mind and is never far from the center of its story. It’s more of a meditation on identity generally, one that takes into account all of the social and political forces that shape who we are, or think we are. It’s also concerned with the unbalanced relationship between those who have power and those who don’t — and, just as important, those who have power but don’t realize or acknowledge it, and tap that power for good or evil ends without realizing they’re doing it.
The host of the aforementioned radio show is Samantha White (Logan Browning). She’s a pot-stirrer who agitates for civil rights, safe spaces, and greater administrative sensitivity to students of color, but often seems oblivious to her own privilege as a light-skinned woman and is secretly dating an earnest white guy named Gabe (John Patrick Amedori). (Why secretly? Because she knows Gabe is bad for her brand.) Gabe sincerely wants to be her ally as well as her lover, and there are many scenes of him listening to a conversation between black students or loitering on the outskirts of a public moment but not speaking because he has nothing to add, or fears that whatever he might say would only pull focus toward him.
To its credit, Dear White People never treats Gabe as an audience surrogate (what a disaster that would’ve been, given the show’s focus on black characters) but as one voice among many, with his own point of view and his own contradictions and blind spots. The show’s nuanced treatment of Sam and Gabe is characteristic of its openhearted, open-minded approach. Characters are never just one thing here, and often the face they present to the public, and even to close friends, doesn’t entirely represent who they are. We think that Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) seems like an ambitious, scheming buppie, and that wooly-Afroed journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) is a shy nerd who’ll eventually land the girl of his dreams, and that Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the dean’s son and a rising political star, is a decadent smoothie who doesn’t really care about anything but satisfying his appetites and gaining his dad’s approval. But we’re disabused of all these notions pretty quickly. And as soon as we’ve gotten used to a different perspective on characters we thought we knew, Dear White People gives us a third and then a fourth perspective that deepens them some more.
The most mesmerizing character is Reggie Green (Marque Richardson), a protester whose anger and wounded sensitivity draw Samantha’s eye. He’s righteous, and Simien positions him more on the Malcolm X side of the civil-rights axis, his magnetism drawing Samantha toward radicalism even as characters like Coco and Troy insist that they can change the system from the inside as long as they practice a version of respectability politics and persuade other students of color to do the same. Reggie, too, proves to be more than an emblem of a particular point of view. He has a self-pitying side, fetishizes his alienation from everyone else, and is not above using his trauma and rage to seem more attractive. None of these details invalidate his positions, they just deepen his character.
Although the first season of Dear White People finished shooting prior to the 2016 presidential election, its political conflicts feel very of the moment. This is less due to serendipity or clairvoyance than the fact that the scripts are dealing with scenarios that have always been a part of American life, since at least the 1930s, but probably earlier. The specific battles presented on this show had some equivalent in the 1980s, when Spike Lee directed School Daze. And of course, they were at the heart of the 1960s, when factions within the American left generally, and within the black civil-rights movement specifically, argued about whether the rotten, racist system should be subverted or smashed or cajoled and manipulated from within, or gently and in a manner that allowed the powerful to save face.
The show is equally fascinating for what it shows us and how it presents it. Like How to Get Away With Murder, Big Little Lies, and other chronologically fractured series, Dear White People looks at a community-rattling event from multiple perspectives (there are actually two big events here, a fracas at a blackface-themed party and a police-brutality incident, and by the time we reach episode ten, the show will have added a third). It keeps revisiting moments from other perspectives, sometimes starting and ending the moment in a different place. Sometimes you hear a moment but don’t see it, or vice versa.
Loosely based on Simien’s 2014 same-titled independent film but superior to it in almost every way, Dear White People states its influences plainly, borrowing and reinterpreting gestures from sources as diverse as Clueless, Heathers, Love Jones (which co-starred Nia Long, who has a supporting role here), the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, and School Daze (which co-starred Giancarlo Esposito, narrator of Dear White People), and muckraking journalism dramas like Spotlight. There are even shout-outs to Ingmar Bergman’s pioneering psychological drama Persona, glimpsed in poster form on a bedroom wall and visually mimicked in subsequent scenes.
But Simien and his writers and directors (whose ranks include Oscar winner Barry Jenkins of Moonlight, who helmed episode five) aren’t just showing off their knowledge: Rather than simply reenact a famous moment with new actors, they burrow to the core of what made that moment great, realizing, for example, that Mookie throwing the trash can through the pizzeria window at the end of Do the Right Thing is not just about vigilantism, but publicly choosing one tribe over another. And the series works hard to develop its own aesthetic, and succeeds. Like all good TV shows, it teaches you how to watch it, and after two or three episodes you start to get to know it the way you would a close friend. After a while, you start to look forward to particular devices, such as the point-of-view shifts that reveal what was happening on the other side of a wall, or the ritualized closing shots of each episode, which allow a character to break the fourth wall and seem to look right into our eyes.
This is also a very talky, often earnestly didactic series, and you need to know that going in, because I know it’s going to be a deal-breaker for a lot of you. Given the show’s allegiance to the tradition of the Social Message movie, Spike Lee’s in particular, as well as to the older tradition of satire that attacks social problems head-on, I’d argue that this was inevitable. It’s also true to the way that a lot of hyperverbal college kids talk to each other, endlessly speechifying on pet subjects and announcing exactly who they are five minutes after you’ve met them. (This is the kind of environment where “I don’t subscribe to heteronormative labels” is a pickup line.) But there are still times when characters sound too much like one another, and not just because they’re probably reading a lot of the same textbooks. And for every line that’s spot-on and hilarious (a black student says of a racist incident, “I thought this kind of thing only happened in the ’50s or in BuzzFeed articles”), there’s a groaner (a problematic relationship is described as “an Ivy League Montague and Capulet situation,” a phrase better suited to a network log line). The constant references to now-current popular culture, clever as they are, are going to date the show as badly as Murphy Brown. And there are points where Dear White People seems to be making blatantly meta-critical asides and preemptive strikes against criticism, though some of these are so clever that they made me laugh anyway. (A throwaway reference to a journalism student writing a “think piece about think pieces about think pieces” sums up online arts criticism in one pungent phrase.)
But these seem like minor quibbles compared to how magnificently the series lays out all of its characters, situations, and themes, and then follows through on them. Its first ten episodes fly by, and while the story wraps up so neatly that I’m inclined to warn Netflix against pushing its luck by ordering more, I love the world Simien and company have created so much that I wouldn’t mind spending at least three more years there, if only to see scenes of DeRon Horton dancing with spastic joy, and hear Giancarlo Esposito correctly pronouncing Godard, savoring it like a bonbon.