The television version of Dear White People dives deeper into its characters than the film did, bringing nuance to the topic of casual racism.
The mere title of Dear White People sent the internet into a tizzy when the film was originally released in 2014. People didn’t even watch the film’s trailer or read a synopsis (because we all know trolls don’t read) before deeming it “reverse racism” and threatening to boycott. Other audiences criticized the film for what they felt was an overly simplistic portrayal of racism on college campuses. Three years later, the film’s director, Justin Simien, has expanded his opus into a 10-episode series that tackles the same issues with more nuance.
Dear White People takes place at the fictitious Ivy League campus of Winchester University, which enjoys touting its meager Black student body when attracting incoming freshman, but otherwise ignores them. The series explores an almost identical plot as the film, opening with scenes from a “Dear Black People” Halloween party, thrown (or so we’re led to believe) by the school’s satirical newspaper, Pastiche. Filled with mammies, Nicki Minaj wannabes and NBA ballers all sporting Blackface, the party finally gives the series’ outspoken bi-racial protagonist, Samantha White (Logan Thompson) undeniable proof of institutional racism on campus. The incident brings together the various Black student groups on campus, who hope to use the party as a catalyst to begin a larger discussion about racism with both administrators and peers.
The series covers impressive ground in its first season, and highlights the casual racism many Black college students encounter on majority-white college campuses. “What are you?” microaggressions take a back seat to white students who brazenly belt out lyrics with “nigga” and then defend their actions with “But Drake said it first!” We see Winchester’s white student body employ tactics commonly used by “All lives matter” proponents, from distracting displays that deter activists’ efforts to flawed claims of suppressed freedom of speech. If there’s one thing that Dear White People makes clear, it’s the potential for these unhealthy environments to deter Black student learning.
One way that the series edges out the film is by taking a closer look at the motivations behind each character. We’re given a bird’s-eye view into Samantha’s internal conflict as she represents the Black voice on campus with her radio show “Dear White People,” but privately struggles to reconcile her feelings for her secret white bae Gabe Mitchell (John Patrick Amedori). A rare divergence from the film, Simien uses activist poet Reggie Green, played by Marque Richardson, as an opportunity to explore the lasting consequences of police brutality on the psyche. Brandon P. Bell reprises his role as Troy Fairbanks, who classmates dub “Troybama” during his run for student body president. The series offers a closer look at the relationship between Troy and his father, Dean Fairbanks, (Obba Babatundé), and highlights how Black parents’ obsession with upward mobility can stifle their high-achieving children. Similarly, Colandrea “CoCo” Conners (Antoinette Robertson) spends the season trying to convince herself that assimilation is the key to success. She points out Samantha’s “light-skinned privilege”more than once and seems to think that, were she the one with the microphone, the reception wouldn’t be so friendly. It’s likely that soft-spoken Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) has the purest intentions of the bunch and it’s through his character that Simien shows how revolutionaries often come in unlikely packages.
For me, the only place where Dear White People falls short is in Simien’s treatment of other minority characters. The inclusion of Ikumi, who literally introduces herself as the gang’s “catch-all Asian friend,” feels forced, especially when she seemingly disappears from the show after accompanying Reggie and friends to a house party. Outside of her brief appearance, we only see other students of color when Troy is soliciting their votes during his presidential campaign. He speaks flawless Spanish to a group of Latinx students while a gardener who overhears his speech makes a bitter remark about how he wishes he could vote. Troy’s display for the assumed Asian Student Union is no better, during which he uses a dumpling to illustrate unity on campus.
Tensions boil over in the first season’s final episode, when golden boy Troy is arrested on the steps of the Armstrong-Parker House, a safe space for Black students that donors believe is causing division on campus. After the drama, we see Samantha and her friends resume their weekly Defamation watch party (Simien’s hilarious twist on Scandal) with glazed eyes. Sometimes reality proves too cruel to face, and denial and distraction the only salves we can offer ourselves to keep pressing on.
No announcement has been made about whether Dear White People will be renewed for a second season. If the show’s 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes is any indicator, we can expect to see the students of Winchester University return for another semester.