Since one of my favorite pastimes is hearing people fumble through arguments that have no basis of evidence or truth, you have to understand I was extremely excited about a movie named “Dear White People”. Arguments about lack of inclusivity in black art always make for good fodder, but these were especially good.
“Argh! What would you do if there was a movie named Dear Black People!?”
“Why is there a BET but no White Entertainment Television!?” (A non-pornographic channel named “WET” is both hilarious and useless).
I digress. Although Dear White People served as a launchpad for Tessa Thompson and Teyonah Parris, I… didn’t really like the movie. The excitement subsided once I realized it wasn’t what I thought it would be. The tone was uneven, often unfocused, and ideas and topics presented were strung together incoherently.
When Netflix announced the TV show, I wasn’t all too thrilled. Especially since Tessa Thompson and Teyonah Parris was missing. I had every intention to avoid it but I decided to take a chance on it. Surprisingly, I ended up really liking it. A lot. While Dear White People was a deeply flawed movie, I think it works much better as a TV show. The movie was an essay but the show is a collection of short stories.
Like most things these days, Dear White People was met with criticism. It’s accused of being black Twitter buzzword word vomit. Others think it depicts imperfect activists who try too hard. Activists who care about the notoriety that comes with activism more than the causes they’re fighting for. Characters who are entitled, annoying, and extra.
Counterargument: Yes, all of these are true. That’s kinda the point.
If a show wanted to tackle issues such as racism, sexism, and classism, it would need the perfect setting. Even better, to truly explore those issues, it would need the right characters to do so. Assholes. Bullshitters. Deeply flawed characters that are every bit problematic as the problematic issues they’re fighting. What better setting than a college campus? Those years in college are a simulation of the real world. People fall into their respective cliques, form their bubbles, and shape their perspective around these experiences. Those bubbles formed affect their worldview not only on campus but in the world that lies outside campus as well. People enter college one person and leave as an entirely different person. Dear White People is interested in self-discovery. Sam is trying to be the leader people need while suppressing her personal pain. Lionel is not only deciding to come out the closet but trying to decide which social circle he fits into. Reggie is trying to fight against the angry black man trope although he’s filled with anger because of how the world views him. Coco is trying so hard to separate herself from her “hood” upbringing that she’s losing what makes her real. Troy has lived for other people his entire life but he doesn’t know how to live for himself. Most characters are extra annoying because that’s how most college kids are. I remember giving sermons on “real hip-hop” while carrying around a copy of The Souls of Black Folks. I waited for hours to meet Cornel West but I can’t stand his ass now. I definitely can’t say I’m the same person I was when I was twenty-one and that came from self-discovery. These characters are finding themselves on campus which in part will help them find themselves in the real world once they leave. It’s often exaggerated but that irony is often a useful device for the show. Like, Sam: She’s a walking contradiction yet something about her is still pure and honest. As a viewer, I am able to reflect on the days when I was like her instead of attacking her for being immature. In a very subtle way, this show attacks selective morality. It’s a very self-aware show because it often takes time to make fun of itself. Most characters are used to joke on other characters for ridiculous behavior. When the movie got too heavy, it could have used these moments of levity to disrupt the serious tone. The show gets to express the original ideas established by the movie without having to focus too much time on one particular part.
Another reason to defend this show is the simplest one: It’s a well-made show. No matter how I felt about the movie, it was apparent Justin Simien was a budding writer and director. For the show, he doesn’t handle 100% of the directing duties but each director honors his aesthetic. Since Sam is a film school student, each episode looks and feels like the intro of a film class project. The imagery of this show evokes callbacks of 1920s film noir, classic documentaries, and one of the most famous shots of all time (Persona by Ingmar Bergman).
[Note: My one Film Criticism class helps me appreciate this aspect of the show.]
Dear White People even has an interesting structure. Normally, episodes are used to linearly advance the narrative. Following the events of the movie, this show sets a conflict into place and uses each episode to gather the point of view of each character. There have been two seasons so far but the story hasn’t really advanced and I mean this in the best way possible. This show is sustainable because instead of being focused on a story that could easily expire, it’s focused on perspective. Instead of relying on narrative, this show is more interested in character development, uncovering the decisions of each character, and how those decisions affect others. A 360-degree structure will allow this show to remain current without advancing too quickly. It’s really unlike any other show on TV currently.
In closing, Dear White People is a damn good show. It’s an elite level show at times. While you may take exception to the motivations of some characters, I think that aspect is by design. It’s meant to call for a larger discussion about the full spectrum of blackness and so far, it’s doing so. Not only is the show accurately depicting the modern-day black experience, it looks good doing so. I’m glad this show exists because although characters are “problematic” there’s a bit of honesty in them all. I find myself hoping the characters on this show keep progressing so they can find the best versions of themselves. If you haven’t checked this show out because of any preconceived reservations, give it a try. I ended up liking it and it’s almost impossible to impress me when my mind is made up. If you’ve given it a chance and decided it’s not for you, give it another shot.