“Dear White People” is the latest successful television series based on a critically acclaimed film. After “Fargo,” “Bates Motel” and “Wet Hot American Summer,” just to name a few, it manages to do what those shows did so well: expand on the ideas and themes of its source material, while staying true to the feel of the films.
Before it even premiered, the show had already been the focus on controversy, with some people accusing the show of “reverse racism.” These criticisms come from individuals who probably have yet to watch the show and therefore are unaware of how fair-minded it is in its exploration of race, identity and culture. It is as willing to point out the failings of its black characters as it is its white characters.
That honesty is what makes it so pivotal.
“People,” based on the 2014 Justin Simien-directed comedy (and in fact, Simien serves as writer and director of the first two episodes of the season), is set on the campus of Ivy League school Winchester (modeled after Harvard). There are several multiracial social factions within the school that gather together to discuss opinions and theories about matters or race and class.
One student, Sam (Logan Browning), hosts a satirical radio show titled, “Dear White People,” in which she offers commentary on issues of race and biting explorations of police brutality and the black community. When white student editors at a rival satirical site named Pastiche hosts a black-face party, Sam uses her show to demand punishment for the individuals who participated in it.
Most of the events of the first five of the season’s 10 episodes focus on this party and the eventual its eventual consequences. The show employs a very clever motif of having each episode focus primarily on a single main character, so that we can see the incident from their prospective.
Now, this isn’t a new technique — it was first famously used in the classic Japanese film “Rashomon” in 1950. But it is a great technique to use for this show, because of the deeply personal nature of racism and how everyone is indeed impacted by it in different ways.
Lionel (DeRon Horton) is a reporter for a campus publication who becomes involved in the ensuing events following the infamous black-face party after he writes follow-up stories about it that deeply divide both students and his editorial staff. Lionel is a terrific character. Wide-eyed, bespectacled and faced with the realization that he is gay. He is the emotional center of the series.
Lionel has a crush on his callow, hunky roommate Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), who aspires to ride his father’s coattails to head of the student union. He is described as a “legacy kid” whose father, Dean Fairbanks (Obba Babatunde), constantly applies pressure on him to gain acceptance from the social elites who have influence within the school.
Reggie (Marque Richardson) is one of the leaders of a black student union who looks to shine a light on the racist undercurrents throughout the campus in all of its forms. Similar to Sam, he also willing to call out both white racists and blacks complicit to prejudice behaviors among the student body.
One of the season’s great inside jokes is Reggie’s goal of launching an app that allows students to vote on whether certain students are “woke” (i.e. willing to address racial matters) or “unwoke.”
“According to the app, I’m the fourth most woke person on this campus,” Reggie declares. “I’m only a few protests away from that top spot!”
One of the strengths of the series is the quantum leap in the quality of the writing compared to the 2014 film. The film, while it had some clever social commentary, felt a bit shoe-horned into a clichéd romantic subplot that did not mesh well with the more biting elements of its satire. The series allows the characters to be fully explored and for the social observations room to breathe.
The show has moments of deep insight as in “Chapter V” when a discussion about race devolves into a tense standoff between an armed campus police officer and an unarmed black student. The ending of that episode and the aftermath of its events in the next one, reflect the show’s ability to fairly consider the differences in how actions are interpreted depending on one’s personal point-of-view and how race and circumstances can often shape them.
Harrowing moments like this are blended with often hilarious vignettes involving references to films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” which add credence to the show’s intellectual pretensions. I also enjoyed the television promo of the Iyanla Vanzant-inspired motivational speaker, which was “banned from Yelp after she used too many expletives in her review of the “Children’s Theater.”
If the show has any weaknesses, I would argue that at times, the satire can be a bit preachy and lack the nuance that make most of its scenes so effective. “Episode X” ends with the ironic imprisonment of a main character and it read to me as a bit forced and too on the nose for its own good.
Nevertheless, “Dear White People” is a fun, engaging series that, despite its freshman year missteps, has enough fresh, crackling humor and thoughtful social commentary that I’m excited to see where the series goes from here.
I’m looking forward to discovering more when school will be back in session.