In Three Words: Smart, Sharp, Relevant.
It's been a few days since Justin Simien’s "Dear White People" dropped on Netflix. 10 episodes, all in and around 30 minutes long. I'm not sure about you guys but my Twitter feed has been blowing up, filled with praise for the Netflix Original, along with a fair share of (white) people shouting "WELL WHAT IF THERE WAS A DEAR BLACK PEOPLE".
Which, funny enough, is the reaction that one of the key messages of DWP is about! Before I explain, let me give you a quick run down of what the show is about.
"Dear White People" is based on the 2014 film of the same name, both created by Justin Simien. It revolves around a fictitious Ivy League "Winchester University" which is a primarily white school. We follow several characters. Sam White (Logan Browning) is a media student with a radio show called "Dear White People", where she airs out all grievances that black people in the University face as the minority. She lives in "Self-segregated" Armstrong-Parker house and is head of the Black Student Union. Sam has her own squad consisting of best friend Joelle, (Ashley Blaine Featherson) Al, (Jemar Michael) Rashid (Jeremy Tardy) and lastly Reggie (Marque Richardson, who was also in the '14 film).
Other important characters include Lionel (DeRon Horton) who is a journalist and covers life in Armstrong-Parker. He's also is gay and really, really socially awkward. Troy (Brandon P Bell, like Richardson, returning from the' 14 film) who is a "legacy kid", seeking to become Student body President. And lastly, Colandrea "CoCo" Connors (Antoinette Robertson) who wants to be elite in every way while also finding "The One".
The episodes follow specific characters, paying homage to the film that followed Sam, Lionel, Troy & CoCo. What's different is that the show had the ability to go even deeper with relationships such as Sam & CoCo's relationship before the present which is something that was not covered in the film, we get to know Reggie a lot more who becomes integral to the plot and Lionel becomes even more complex than he already was! Dealing with sexuality and his attraction to Troy.
Both the Netflix version and the film version revolve around a "Blackface" party, hosted by local satirical magazine "Pastiche". Where the film deals with everything running up to the party, the Netflix version dealt with the aftermath, which was something that made this very fresh. They had no need to rehash the film and I'm happy they went that direction while also keeping to the root which is the party.
The show is very fresh in my mind, as I write this it's been less than 24 hours since I watched it all front to back and for people that know me, I love the film, I've seen it several times and I wrote about it as part of an essay a while back. So I find myself very equipped to talk about the inner workings of this series.
Oh. Nearly forgot. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN.
Okay, so instead of telling you what happens, I want to talk about the cultural and social struggles that these characters go through as black people. Let's begin with Sam.
Sam is bi-Racial, according to Joelle, she's "Tracee Ellis Ross Bi-Racial", she is a natural born leader that is discovered as we see in the flashback episode that revolves around her and CoCo. Now when people see a strong woman, who is unapologetically black and spends her days roasting white people... And is dating a white guy, people can't help but shout "HYPOCRISY".
The white guy is Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) who is "woke" but funny enough, similar to black people, has to tiptoe through most of his social encounters. He's the only one in the grey area, in an environment where there's no such thing as a grey area.
What you get throughout this show is that everybody is complex and in a cutthroat social space such as University, you got to hide that complexity. Sam is a leader. But she's also a woman. That's why she gravitates to Gabe. Because she can just be a girl around him. Everywhere else she has to be a social arsonist. Which brings me to Reggie.
Reggie was, for me, a highlight of this show. In the film he was interesting but the film didn't have time to explore him so I'm glad the writers made an effort to show us Reggie and peel back his layers. Reggie goes through the black man experience of being strong visually and mentally and, similar to Sam, not being able to show weakness. So when the pivotal episode 5 comes and Reggie gets a gun pulled on him by Campus police, he shrinks in the coming episodes, crying on the floor as Sam knocks on his door. But there was something I noticed with Reggie. Once he had sex with Sam, by the end of the series, his fixation with her, a fixation that was documented to be since their Freshman years, was gone. That's a nod to just being a male in general and I liked that little piece of social context.
As it turns out. All he needed was some Nooki.
Reggie was a painted picture of the modern black man, taught to be strong, unbreakable, but mortality humbles everybody.
Let's go now to Troy. With this father being the Dean of Students, Troy was being groomed all his life. Now in the film, he simply wanted to write jokes instead of becoming the perfect man made in his father's image. In the series, he simply wanted to leave it all behind, pack up and start again somewhere. Throughout the series, Troy was realising that in politics, somebody always has to be marginalised, you can't please everyone. Even if you are "The Best of both worlds".
And can I just take the time to mention Nia Long? I LOVE Nia Long. She's absolute perfection. I'll stop there because you didn't come here to see me melt over Nia Long.
Okay. Back to Troy. The facade he was pulling all his life, was something he actively recognised, his father was very definitive. "Say what I tell you to say". Now I'm not a father, but I can understand father Fairbanks' motivation. Not wanting Troy to go through the struggles he went through. And once CoCo realised that Troy wasn't truly "About that life", her fixation with him went in the blink of an eye.
Which brings me to CoCo. Now as a black person, I look at the world and see some people bury their heads in the sand, not wanting to see the constant horrors of life. As a child growing up in South Side Chicago, CoCo was sick and tired of being sick and tired. She didn't want "Peak Blackness" because she saw it growing up. People getting shot, socially speaking, for being black. She actively tried to stump her blackness by trying to act like a member of Bechet House. (where the rich, white kids lived) I couldn't relate personally to CoCo but that, if anything, made her more interesting to me. The fact that I couldn't relate made me want to understand her more.
Lastly, Lionel. He drove the plot several times such as letting the BSU know about the party and leading the pack in breaking up the party. Writing the articles documenting everything. He learned a lot of lessons about being a voice. As an unbiased reporter, people can interpret your words in different ways. So when he posted an article about Reggie being held at gunpoint, people blamed the person who called the police, which happened to be Gabe. (Which further plummeted him in the grey area of "Doing the right thing") But as a gay, black, socially awkward man, Lionel was great in being trustworthy to everybody. If anything, the seemingly weakest of the bunch, was the strongest throughout. Managing to find himself, do the right thing and be good to everyone. You can't not love Lionel.
From how I've written this, the show seems pretty dark. But I have dived into the context of the characters and not the outer layers of the show. On the outside, this show is very funny. It's smart but also caters to the stupid things in black life, such as the concept of "Hate watching" shows. This case being "Defamation" which is a parody of Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal".
Now I promised earlie that I'd explain why the reaction of (white) people saying "WELL WHAT IF THERE WAS A DEAR BLACK PEOPLE" brings home one of the messages of DWP. It's because the party in the show was Sam White exposing the closeted racism that the students of Winchester had. Exposing micro-aggressions. And that's what DWP does as a show in itself! Exposing the (white) people that show offence when they clearly haven't watched the show or the film or read the book. Now I've been putting white in brackets because nothing is universal. Black people could be offended, you never know.
But that is what's so great about this show. In the social construct of the Western World, the grey area is larger than the black & white. We're all complex, everybody in this show is complex. And that's okay. At the end of the day, whether you're black or white, we all have our struggles...
But black people have more... "AH HOW CANYOU SAY THAT! I'M SO ANGRY AT SOMETHING!"