One of Dear White People's sumptuous ironies is that people who are put off by its title and subject matter might enjoy it the most, since its biting wit and critical eye don't let anyone — including its black characters — go unchecked. But even people who'd swear they'd never watch Dear White People — especially people who wouldn't watch Dear White People — might find themselves transfixed by the masterful Episode VIII of the show's second season. In it, DWP's black protagonist and her white ex-boyfriend go at it in an explosive verbal throwdown that's a summation of the whole series, and in a larger sense, the frustrations black and white Americans wish they could unload onto one another without fear.
"It felt like the argument that we're all trying to have in bits and pieces, on Twitter and other places," Justin Simien, DWP's creator told TV Guide, "so we were like, 'Let's just do it. Let's just have it out."
In the half hour, grad student and filmmaker Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) gets locked into a heated conversation with his ex Samantha (Logan Browning), the provocateur behind Winchester University's radio show Dear White People. Amid intensifying racial animosity and alt-right antagonizing on campus, Sam's show becomes a scapegoat for hostilities, prompting Gabe to do a documentary Am I Racist? and interview Sam for it. Then all hell breaks loose. Gabe questions the legitimacy of her anger; she accuses him of exploiting her to assuage his white guilt. Penned by Dear White People writer Jack Moore, a playwright who is white, Episode VIII performs the minor miracle of confidently placing the audience smack dab in the middle of righteous black anger, while at the same time making viewers empathetic to a white man who wants to do the right thing but feels cornered and attacked. As their voices rise and the exchanges become more personal, Gabe and Sam yank the tarp off raw racial wounds, confronting resentments and frustrations that sound very much like the bickering that takes place in message boards and cable news. If there's an episode of TV about racial divides in 2018 everybody should watch, this is it.
As with all good fights, there is backstory. Last season, Sam got outed as the person who'd unintentionally instigated a brawl on campus by anonymously encouraging white coeds to don blackface at a party — a twisted experiment to expose racism on campus. Gabe got outed as the person who called the cops, which resulted in Reggie Green (Marque Richardson) on the other side of a police gun. Sam slept with Reggie while she and Gabe were in a state of dubious relationship limbo; Gabe disappointed Sam by bailing on a protest Sam arranged. Their wounds are as ideological as they are personal.
Sam, still uncertain of how to constructively channel her anger this season, makes the important point that Gabe's message is the same as hers, just easier for people to swallow because it's coming from a white man. That's true, but complicated by the fact that Sam's dad is white. Up until now, Dear White People has let Sam's insecurities about her own racial identity go mostly unaddressed. Her paranoia that people would see her activism as inauthentic because she's a fair-skinned woman from a privileged background has always been the Achilles heel she kept covered in her protest marching boots, but Gabe, liberated from politeness or the fear he'd say the wrong thing, zeroes in on it and slices her with the truth.
"You overcompensate for the part of you you hate," he huffs at her, incredulous that she presents herself as an authority on a subject she's barely handling well herself. "You've made yourself judge and jury on every issue," he tells her, furious that she demands that he use his voice to combat racism but when he does, she accuses him of colonizing a conversation he doesn't have a right to participate in. Even more shocking, he says she hides behind a "veil of anger" — an indictment that's dangerously close to the problematic line of calling her an Angry Black Woman. But, is she?
"You don't get to tell me my anger isn't honest," she says, asking him if he thinks she can choose the days she gets to be a black woman, or a white one. "This isn't Selma!," he roars, furious that Sam behaves more like an idealized version of a civil rights leader she only knows from history books rather than the girl who broke his heart.
Most of the episode takes place inside the studio booth, compounding a sense of volatility, as the camera journeys around the room with sensual direction from Simien. The episode is one of his favorites ever; shooting it took three days. "I didn't just shoot it to get a bunch of cool angles so I wouldn't get bored. I got to sink my teeth into it." Neither Gabe nor Sam is "right" — at least at first, but the compassion with which the characters' points of view are treated feels refreshing and vital in these divided times. "I think what we were saying is that, at a certain point, does it matter who is right?," says Simien. "Don't these people just want to be together?"
That's that point that might astonish people who might've been apprehensive about the series: the real winner of the argument isn't the black woman or the white guy but progress itself — a constructive step towards healing and reconciliation that moves everyone in a positive direction.
"Don't we just want to be together as a nation?" Simien says. "Wouldn't we rather just be together and not feel the tension?" That doesn't mean black people should stop being outraged at injustice, he says, but "there are limits to what the kind of discourse we're having can actually provide us. Are we doing this because we want to be right or are we doing this because we want to solve something?" Everybody who watches it will have a different answer but they'd have heard each other's side, making them even just a little bit better suited to offer something that looks like a solution.
Dear White People Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.