“Dear White People” Opens a Conversation about Race with Humor and Nuance
“Dear White People,” the title of Justin Simien’s 10-part Netflix show based on his 2014 film of the same name, has unapologetically garnered a lot of outrage and opinions. People from every side of the spectrum criticized the title for its accusatory tone and the creator wrote a whole Medium article explaining the title. White people flip out that the title is accusing all white people of being bad, with the argument that you couldn’t have a show called “Dear Black People.” And other critics who have watched the show and like it, think that this name has a polarizing effect and less people will watch it just because of the name.
But plenty of people are watching it, in part because of its provocative title, and it’s been received well with 100% approval by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, albeit 58% on their average audience score. The TV show, premiering three years after the movie, keeps the same premise and main characters. It follows a small community of black students at a generic, mostly white Ivy League school named Winchester. The show excels at representing everyday experiences for people of color within a privileged institution and in a supposed post-racial age, and if it gets political, it’s because it resonates with reality. Simien’s creation is meant to be satire and most of what he writes into the show is because he observed it in real life, as he attended the nearby, nearly all white private college, Chapman University. At first, Simien debated writing in the blackface party that ends the movie and catalyzes the series because it seems like we’re far beyond that– but then he read about a blackface party at UC San Diego in 2010 called “Compton Cookout.” The big moments of friction and protest within the series come from actual events; they’re entirely realistic and draw satire ever closer to truth.
“Dear White People” is one of the few shows that lets itself focus on race and that Netflix funded and supported it is a promising sign for film and television. It gives a voice to black artists, actors and experiences very much within the mainstream. Many of the 50.85 million Netflix subscribers in America will see it on their browsing screen. That’s a lot of visibility for what was just Simien’s art school film.
And that indie film approach translates well to TV. Each episode, or chapter, is told from one character’s perspective, following their individual journey within the larger narrative of the events at Winchester. With these alternating viewpoints, we see the struggles that each one of them has with their own identity and with racial politics: Samantha White (Logan Browning), the main protagonist is biracial and has a white boyfriend that she struggles to bring into her activism; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), as the son of Winchester’s dean, is trying to carve his own path under immense pressure from his father to be perfect and respectable; Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), the gutsy reporter, is figuring out his sexual and racial identity, not feeling like he truly belongs to any group at Winchester.
While the series’ plot revolves around conflicts and their subsequent reverberations, the characters are one of the strongest components of the show and reveal accessible and real experiences. They grapple with colorism, types of activism, police brutality, sexual orientation, family drama, and relationships, in the midst of sharp dialogue and plentiful pop culture references. While the main characters are mostly black, except for the white boyfriend Gabe, none are idealized. They all have their flaws and make mistakes. Even Sam, the leader of the movement, makes unethical choices and messes up her own relationship. As in reality, none of them are perfect; none of them models behavior we should necessarily follow.
And that idea formulates people’s different responses: is “Dear White People” really for white people, informing them about blackness and how they should consider these issues, or is it just reflecting and describing reality, representing black experiences in an underrepresented film landscape?
Of course I’m going to say that it can be both. The show has critics from both sides, from white people feeling accused to black people saying it’s not accusatory enough and that it’s channeling faux wokeness. Either way, it’s doing something to address these topics. While it can’t be the one thing to erase racism, “Dear White People” can share experiences, from many different perspectives, and show that the story is more complicated than it seems.