‘Dear White People’ is savvy, sincere look into Black life in college

Adam Rose/Netflix/Courtesy
"Dear White People" | Netflix
Grade: A-

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Last Monday, students at Minnesota liberal arts college St. Olaf College protested — and shut down — the campus after a racist, incendiary note was left on the windshield of Black student Samantha Wells’ car. It’s one of many traumas that Black students on college campuses have experienced, from UCLA fraternity parties through the segregationist policies that led to the formation of HBCUs — which the Trump administration, allegedly, now seems to think are discriminatory.

The Netflix series “Dear White People” negotiates the real-world frustrations of being Black in white elite college campuses — and of being Black in a larger system that neglects Black people’s livelihoods — with sincerity and nuance. It’s a phenomenal credo, one that mixes its biting charm with an understated depth.

An extension of the 2014 movie of the same name, the Netflix series leads off with a blackface party at the fictional Winchester University, unveiling the abject racism running through the elite institution. The blackface party is coordinated by Pastiche, a humor magazine that resembles an anti-social justice SQUELCH!.

Media, in all its forms, operates as the core of campus life in “Dear White People.” Aside from the premise of “Dear White People” playing out like “Another Round” for the Snapchat age, Lionel (DeRon Horton) — a journalist for the school paper — must grapple with the realities of objective journalism and the necessity for first-person storytelling in reporting.

But “Dear White People” makes it a point to take into consideration media’s role in Black culture as well. Bravo-style reality TV and Tyler Perry are all sent up with equal reverence and frustration at the dearth of popular Black media. Notably, a “Scandal” knockoff plays double-duty as self-care and camaraderie throughout the show.

Justin Simien — the creator behind the original 2014 film — is still involved as an executive producer, and writer and director of three episodes. He maintains the film’s quick-witted appeal over the course of its 10 episodes. But where the film could shunt a couple of characters over 90 minutes, the structure of “Dear White People” affords the characters breathing room to simply exist.

Each main character is the focal point of an episode or two: Sam (Logan Browning), the “Tracee Ellis Ross biracial” protagonist of the film, must reconcile her visibility as a Black activist with dating a white guy. Lionel crushes hard on Troy (Brandon P. Bell), his immensely handsome Lothario of a roommate. Troy, himself the son of Winchester’s dean, has to navigate his father’s respectability politics as he vies for campus president.

Most stunningly, Coco (Antoinette Robertson) — the sort-of villain of the “Dear White People,” movie — is framed here as a victim of circumstance. She stakes her claim as the token Black friend for the white people who serve as the ire of Sam’s radio show not as a rejection of her Blackness, but as a byproduct of rejection from the Black groups on campus.

It’s in this multiplicity of perspectives that “Dear White People” as a show improves upon its predecessor. The issues it tackles — colorism, self-care, competing political ideologies, Black queerness and even allyship, is treated with a steady hand.

Injustice bleeds into the everyday lives of the characters, a devastating reminder that lingers throughout the series. The show’s pivotal scene starts in the fifth episode, which places its focus on Reggie, a slam poet and activist whose nonchalant brilliance goes largely unseen.

The scene is set with Future blaring at some college party. Reggie’s casual acquaintance raps the n-word, setting off a chain of events that ends with the threat of police violence. It’s a heart-stopping half-hour of television, but Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), who helms the episode, never resorts to tragedy porn or easy melodrama.

That’s the unflinching reality of “Dear White People.” “The whole movement is about pain,” Sam argues after the events of the party. “That’s why we’re out here in these streets.” She’s right. But “Dear White People” is the rare show that refuses to sacrifice its levity and joy through struggle. It’s a triumph.

Contact Joshua Bote at [email protected]. Tweet him at @joshuaboat.