In February, Netflix released the first teaser trailer for Justin Simien’s series “Dear White People,” and some dark corner of the Internet didn’t take it lightly. Hours later, #BoycottNetflix was a popular hashtag, and Twitter was filled with cries of “white genocide” and “reverse racism.” Three months later, the show seems to have had different luck than the one the alt-right would’ve wished. The show has a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it has the potential to become one of Netflix’s most prominent shows.
A rework of the 2014 Sundance-winner indie film, Dear White People follows Sam White (Obba Babatundé). A black student at Winchester University, a predominantly white elite college, she hosts a radio show (“Dear White People”), where she cunningly talks about the race tensions on campus. It also focuses on the experiences of Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the dean’s son who leads a black student union and plans to run for president of the student government, and Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), a black sophomore who writes for the school’s newspaper and has numerous characteristics that cause people to to doubt his heterosexuality.
Sam, Troy, and Lionel find themselves in a turmoiled campus after invitations were mysteriously sent for a blackface party, which was crashed and shut down by black student activists. As Sam denounces in her radio show, the party has brought to light the deep racism that, she argues, is engrained in Winchester itself.
The success of the series can be probably attributed to the freshness of its portrayal of black youth. The show stems away from one-sided, stereotypical portrayals of black people in media. It denies all claims of political correctness, and presents profound characters willing to poke fun at themselves. Winchester students are complex and amusing, and the show manages to submerge them in Gossip Girl-caliber drama while also throwing in a witty joke or two in the process. Some of them are outspoken activists, others are career-focused overachievers, others just want to fit in—but, most importantly, none of them are simplistic.
The Netflix show does some smart departures from the earlier film. Except for some actors, such as Bell, the production mainly recasted all the roles, leaving behind some awkward performances. The script is also interestingly rewritten, giving some characters more depth. The series, for example, delves more into the Lionel’s coming to terms with him being gay, and explores more interestingly the sociability of the group of bourgeois black students. Moreover, some uncomfortable stretches and plot holes are fixed, making the story much more credible.
What it does keep from its predecessor, however, is its strong comment about racial issues on campus. The show does not fall short from showing how Black students, the administration, and the predominantly white student body clash. It presents an extremely contemporary and pressing issue, however, with an ingenious humorous twist. It also deserves praise for its accurate portrayal of white allies, often awkwardly felt amid guilt and self-exclusion.
The series’ aesthetic is one of its biggest feats, too. Heavily borrowing from the film, style of symmetrical shots, Instagram-faded hues and overall grim Wes Anderson-vibes gives the series’ visuals an important dose of originality. The series aims to be visually tongue-in-cheek pretentious, and achieves this without letting any shot lose its authenticity and screencap-worthiness.
Netflix’s bet for Simien’s series is a bold one, yet undeniably successful. It appeals to a generation willing to question their presuppositions and to engage in a discussion about race in campus. The show’s greatest merit is doing that without losing its comic relief. With complex characters, tumultuous drama, and hilarious gags, Dear White People proves that being “woke” can be also be quite fun.
Featured Image by Netflix