The minute Netflix's trailer for Dear White People dropped, some folks called for boycotts of the streaming-video service and sent nasty messages to creator Justin Simien online...before the show had even aired. Knee-jerk rage is not that surprising in 2017, of course, but then, mild trepidation towards the show wouldn't be all that shocking either. Because while we know we "should be talking about race," as pundits say, we kind of don't want to. Race is touchy. Nobody wants to sound dumb. Or feel guilty. Or be called a racist. Talking about race can be exhausting. It's complicated, confusing and depending on who you're talking with, terrifying.
Not here. Netflix's adaption of Simien's 2014 movie is hilarious, smartly written and deeply engrossing entertainment that presents race and the ways we deal with it (and don't) in the most upbeat, even fun way we've seen on TV in a long time, if ever. Tighter and more layered than the film from which it's adapted, the satire respects all its characters — the militant black people, the gay people, the token Asian, the "can't we all just get along" people, the immigrants and yes, the white folks — as much as it lampoons all of them. Principled and frequently misguided, the players make us see (and laugh at) ways we all bring our own perceptions and baggage into how we see and engage with others. This is a long way of saying that, if you think you won't like it, you'd probably love it.
Let's be clear though: although very funny, Dear White People isn't a Kumbaya, everybody-gets-to-go-home-happy experience. It very much drops racism (as well as bias and prejudice, which Simien subtly reminds us are different things often mistakenly mushed together) right in our laps. But the tough pill goes down smoothly, due in part to the fact that it's beautifully rendered, with a lush, seductive look maintained by several directors including Moonlight's Barry Jenkins.
Told through rotating protagonists (events are shown from different subjects' eyes), Dear White People uses the familiar voice of Giancarlo Esposito as narrator — a nod to his role in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, gently hinted at throughout — to welcome us to prestigious and predominantly white Winchester University. A powder keg is erupting, as Pastiche, the (white) campus humor magazine, unintentionally played host to a "Dear Black People" party wherein white people dressed up as African-Americans. They've got on rapper costumes, gangster costumes and yes, blackface. Of course, unexpected guests show up: a handful of pissed-off black people, some of whose individual stories play out as the 10 episodes unfold.
Enjoying this drama a little too much is Samantha "Sam" White (Logan Browning), who uses the incident as fodder for her radio show "Dear White People." She's a provocateur, yet hardly a perfect symbol of the movement she romanticizes since her activism is fueled partially by her own insecurities. She's half-white and secretly dating Gabe (John Patrick Amadori), a sensitive and patient white dude sometimes alienated by her confrontational style. She's not as removed from the party as we're led to believe either, which complicates the purity of her message.
The party, and its aftermath, is told through the POV of the motley crew in her orbit, including Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) a shy and gay news reporter who keeps uncovering damning information; Troy Fairbanks, (Brandon P. Bell) son of the dean and a goody two-shoes who's not really sure how to navigate his identity; Sam's equally militant crush Reggie Green (Marque Richardson); and Cocoa Conners (Antoinette Robertson), Sam's ex-roommate and sometimes adversary who's more comfortable with white people partially because of challenges her dark skin presents. At Sam's side throughout is her BFF Joelle — the comic force of the show played to perfection by Ashley Blaine Featherson -- who delivers many of the series' best laugh-out-loud lines. (As in when Joelle, lusting after a white guy, says to Sam: "He gives me James Blake, Ryan Reynolds vibes!" Sam: "You're just naming random white people." Joelle: "I am.") Jokes and references come quickly and in many layers; it's a show that rewards your pop culture knowledge as much as your "wokeness."
Characters can at times feel a bit cloying, yet the fact that they're college students grants them a pass since, well, you know college kids: idealistic, impassioned and just as naïve as they are agents of change. But despite some flaws, these characters' whip-smart dialogue and varying perspectives offer an immersive, important study on what it means to be black today, and our culture at large. All that's fantastic, but what feels most provocative and unifying about Dear White People is how characters' inabilities to see past their own experiences and pain to find common truths causes miscommunication, or worse. By Episode 5, the increasingly escalating chaos becomes dangerous for Reggie, reminding us that, for all the conversation about race, this is still a matter of life or death for black men. By the conclusion, institutional wrongdoing has been exposed. It's not the show's best metaphor, but a still-great look at the structural disadvantages hovering over minorities' lives.
It's a win for Netflix. While not for the timid, thanks to no-holds-barred language and frank talk, Dear White People doesn't need a trigger warning as much as it does a heads up to clear your schedule when you start watching: you won't be able to stop.
Dear White People begins streaming on Netflix Friday, April 28.