This review contains spoilers for season two of “Dear White People.”
The first season of Justin Simien’s “Dear White People” was a focused rumination on discrimination at Ivy League institutions, comparing white collegiate culture to Black academic and social experiences. There was a defined line drawn in the sand with the show’s freshman season, one painted in explicitly black and white terms.
The sophomore year of “Dear White People” takes the show’s goals to a whole new and vastly more impressive level. Budding with identity crises, tumultuous relationships and a look at the underbelly of politics, each episode fearlessly showcases an even more thorough and diverse array of opinions and identities than those of season one.
Focusing on the narratives of individual characters, the episodes possess targeted messages, allowing for the coverage of more topics. Reggie Green’s (Marque Richardson) narrative explores his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after having a gun pulled on him by a campus police officer in season one, as well as the problematic justice system. Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) has her first stand-alone episode, wherein she dates a man who turns out to be homophobic and sexist. Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) gets an abortion.
The power of these stories is not just in the important topics they broach. It’s in how many of the characters encounter universal struggles, struggles that could be encountered by people of any race, here grounded in and informed by the characters’ Black identities.
The show’s leading lady Samantha White (Logan Browning) faces conflicts that represent the broadened yet poignant commentary of this season. While Sam’s voice was steadfast and unflinching in season one, this time around, audiences see a more uncertain, conflicted side of her.
Facing racist backlash from an internet troll, Sam goes down the clapback rabbit hole, defending her honor yet losing sight of what her show, and her values, are truly fighting for. She grapples with her biracial background when she visits home after her father’s death — resulting in one of the most profound and moving episodes of the season.
Sam struggles with jealousy over her white ex-boyfriend Gabe Mitchell (John Patrick Amedori) and with her public identity. Her process of introspection, wherein she is constantly re-evaluating her show and her actions, opens the door to conversations about the complexity of biracial, Black identity and nuanced sociopolitical beliefs.
One of the biggest revelations on the show is that Sam’s racist internet troll is Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff), the gay and Mexican former editor of the newspaper that Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) imploded in season one. Although he tells Lionel that his tweets at Sam were exaggerated in order to get more likes, he shares that he is genuinely appalled by the liberal bubble on campus. And through masterful narrative timing and a pitch-perfect screenplay for the episode, the reveal of his hidden Republican values is shocking.
What Simien has done is ask the question: Why are we so shocked by this reveal? This probing is what makes the show one of the most powerful series on TV right now. In Silvio’s character arc, the assumption that all people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community are liberal or radical leftists is exposed as flawed. While season one drew that black and white line, season two explores the gray area in between with characters such as Silvio.
In the same vein, when Sam confronts Rikki Carter (Tessa Thompson) — a Republican, Black public figure — the monologue with which Rikki interrupts her is one of the best moments of the entire show. She tells Sam that her conservative persona was designed to be controversial and to make her money, just as she predicts Sam will make money off of her own radio show. Thompson’s jaded amusement and cool delivery, paired with her flawlessly written monologue, creates such a pristine moment in the finale — one that sends Sam spiraling into disillusionment.
The monologue addresses the idea that public figures have to be branded — that no matter what side they crusade for, it must be extreme. Given the recent Kanye West and Candace Owens comments, Simien stated that a character like Rikki Carter offers some comfort in the idea that it might all be for publicity.
The amalgamation of all of these pieces creates a magnificently curated second season. While some might consider the show’s range of topics to be unorganized or overly broad, in reality, it showcases Simien’s mastery. This season’s broad scope of issues is beautifully intertwined, providing a global and narrowed commentary at the same time.
Simien’s collection of narrative tactics and cinematic genius used to tell Black-focused stories is what makes the sophomore year of “Dear White People” outstanding.