For the past half-century, college campuses have served as a primary theater of the culture wars. So it’s fitting that one of the year’s most provocative, timely, searching, intellectually prickly, and ultimately satisfying series takes place at a university. Netflix’s Dear White People, which raids the 2014 film of the same name for parts, isn’t a 101 course on contemporary blackness for the SJW generation. Nor is it, thankfully, for everyone. Rather, the comedy feels like that rare advanced seminar in which few of the enrolled agree but everyone’s whip-quick and philosophically compelling. Look no further for a cerebral thrill ride.
Written and directed by Justin Simien, the Sundance-feted feature was a cold, schematic storybook packed with sly witticisms and needle-sharp observations. The visual stylizations are less distracting here, but the series is much the same — so much so, actually, that the first few episodes rehash the events of the movie, which center on the reactions of four very different African-American students to a blackface dorm party. The initial two episodes are clunky and overlong, but the show stops tuning and finds its baroque melody by the third installment. Even its riskiest storyline, which involves a Black Lives Matter–inspired threat of armed force by campus security against an African-American student (paralleled by an actual incident at Yale), glides without a glitch through the fifth episode, directed by Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins.
One reason the blackface party hits the African-American students so hard (other than the fact that it’s the goddamn 21st century) is that their college self-discovery process involves continual self-scrutiny about whether they fulfill a stereotype — the same set of harmful images the white kids get to blithely treat like costumes. For light-skinned activist Sam (Logan Browning), that means a constant struggle to prove she’s “black enough,” especially when she publicly embraces a white guy (John Patrick Amedori) as her boyfriend. (“I’m not sure I can let a white man colonize my body,” Sam’s friend Joelle, played by Ashley Blaine Featherson, tuts in half-jest.) Freshman Lionel (DeRon Horton) lives in fear of re-encountering the black homophobia he has faced in the past, and his anxiety about not being masculine enough is compounded by his discomfort with the “gay” label. Lionel’s tireless investigation into who organized that blackface party — spoiler: It was one of the black students as a stunt-protest — drives much of the plot in the first half of the season.
Then there are the black students striving to minimize their “blackness”: Student body president Troy (Brandon P. Bell) chooses to row crew instead of playing football, while scholarship student Coco (Antoinette Robertson) courts “The Marshmallows” for her lunch clique. Sam and Lionel are more traditionally likable characters — earnest, passionate, principled — but it’s Troy and Coco who gradually expose melancholic, heartbreaking layers. Despite projecting a Superman-like geniality (and abs), “Troy-bama” is clearly withering inside as he follows, with military precision, his college-dean father’s (Obba Babatundé) orders regarding his social life. (After a freshman year drowned in beer, Troy submits to regular drug tests from his dad.) Arriving at the fictional Ivy League campus from Chicago’s South Side, Coco is a schemer, a grasper, a gimlet-eyed observer, and the loneliest girl in school. Willfully blind to the fact that none of the preppy future oligarchs would consider having a black first lady by his side, she relentlessly pursues the Chad Townsend Vs on campus (“He’s a fifth!”), while bristling at their exoticization of her dark skin.
This navigation of the political while figuring out the personal gives Dear White People a depth and acuity missing from so many familiar coming-of-age narratives. But the real reason to watch is the volley of jokes, ideas, accusations, and opinions battling for supremacy. “Our skin color is not a weapon,” declares Sam on her radio show (from which the series gets its title). “You don’t have to be afraid of it.” A stress-eating Joelle announces, “Waist-thin, ass-thick is gonna have to wait until America solves its racial issues.” Reggie (Marque Richardson), a “soldier” for the anti-racism cause in love with Sam, lashes out at her white boo: “Just because you got a black chick on your arm doesn’t mean you get to Miley Cyrus our pain.” The meme-ready diktats and razor-edged pop-culture critiques are hilarious; for all that, though it’s somewhat disappointing that every white student is straight out of boarding school, nixing the possibility of intersectional frisson between, say, the black students’ probable economic privilege and a hypothetical white student’s working-class background.
Each episode focuses on a different character — a decentering that underscores the divisions and isolations within the tiny black community at the predominantly white university. Resentments brew between the “respectable” protesters and the rabble-rousers, the mean girls who can afford club-membership fees of $1,500 and the wannabes who can’t. For all the enormous analytical passion and creativity that the black students are able to conjure, the fissures among them eventually threaten to shut down the dorm that they all agree is their one safe space on campus.
There’s no getting around the fact that the new cast lacks the raw charisma of the movie leads, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, and Tyler James Williams. (Bell reprises his film role as Troy.) But the TV actors are quick to make the characters’ rueful, cutting humor and hangdog love triangles their own. Their weary, wary faces betray the toll that dodging the infinite landmines of identity politics can take. But, as Sam’s “I can’t breath” (note the missing e) poster illustrates, there are a lot of laughs to be had in the mistakes, too — even at the vanguard.
Dear White People streams on Netflix.