When the first trailer dropped for Netflix’s Dear White People, certain bigoted users left the streaming service, angrily tweeting that the show was “anti-white” and “promoted white genocide.” It would be a shame for that misguided controversy to drive viewers away from the latest Netflix gem, because the show is smart, essential viewing for modern America.
The series picks up where the 2014 film of the same name left off, after a blackface party on a fictional Ivy League campus sparks controversy. (You can watch the series cold, but the film is also well worth your time.) Sam White (Logan Browning, one to watch), a biracial woman running Winchester’s wokest radio program, “Dear White People,” steps up as the de facto leader of the black cause. She has the fire and righteous anger exemplified by activist groups like Black Lives Matter. She’s eager to be heard and to make change happen. However, part of the beauty of Dear White People is the variety of perspectives on display. While another show might have the Token Black Character, Dear White People is focused on showing many different facets of the black experience.
Over the course of ten, 30-minute episodes, each major character gets at least one episode from his or her point of view. While Sam is ready to burn the system down, Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is trying to work within it. The son of the dean and student body president, Troy sees injustice but is too comfortable in the benefits that his position affords him. Lionel (DeRon Horton) is an up and coming student journalist who’s coming to terms with his sexuality while also finding himself torn between furthering his career and the strength of his convictions. Coco (Antoinette Robertson, another standout) is the first person in her family to go to college and sees a relationship with the influential Troy as a straight ticket to political power and building a dynasty. And then there’s Reggie (Marque Richardson), who’s torn between his unrequited crush on Sam and his desire to be the embodiment of powerful black manhood.
Each of these characters, in less deft hands, could have easily devolved into stereotypes. However, showrunner Justin Simien, who also directed the film, keeps them firmly grounded in an all-too-familiar reality. Director Barry Jenkins, fresh off of Oscar glory for Moonlight, directs a powder keg episode midseason, sending the show into a highly political and relevant second half. After beautifully exploring black identity in Moonlight, Jenkins manages to pack a similar emotional punch in Reggie’s episode, highlighting a fear that has become all too real for African Americans. I won’t spoil it here, but the event will leave you breathless and sick to your stomach.
It would have been easy for Simien to hold up every white character as a straw man for the show to knock down, but he is clearly not interested in villainous caricatures. There are the bigoted donors, the All Lives Matter people screaming about “reverse racism,” and the frat boys who revel in the lazily taboo act of blackface, but there are also white allies who recognize how systemic power structures are rigged in their favor, like Sam’s “White Bae” Gabe (John Patrick Amedori).
That being said: If you’re white (and this includes me), you probably won’t see your own experiences reflected onscreen, and your privilege will definitely be challenged. This is a good thing and a reason why you should tune in. Nearly every other television series focuses on white characters and how they view the world, so this differing perspective is essential to creating a fuller picture of reality. Dear White People is unapologetically rooted in blackness, and it would benefit us all to look outside of ourselves for once.
While the stories are told with the witty dialogue and ridiculously beautiful people of television, the plot points are ripped straight from the headlines. There are no easy answers to the issues raised in Dear White People, but the problems addressed are relevant to every American in a time with increased police brutality, an administration hostile to minorities, and a system that is still rigged against people of color. Yes, Dear White People is a satire packed with the love triangles, sexcapades, and relationship tangles of your average young adult drama, but the issues it raises are anything but trivial.
All episodes of Dear White People will be available for streaming on Netflix on April 28th.