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DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is Thoughtful, Funny, Must-watch TV

By on May 1, 2017

Pictured: Ashley Blaine Featherson, Logan Browning (Adam Rose/Netflix)

By Chelsea Hensley

When Justin Simien’s Dear White People premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 it was to critical acclaim, but it was immediately met with push back from people offended by everything from the film’s title to the very notion racism is still an issue. But on the other side were those impressed by the film’s determination to tackle the exploding racial tensions at a fictional Ivy-League university.

This reviewer though the film was just okay, but flash forward a few years and Dear White People’s first, ten-episode season lands on Netflix. Giancarlo Esposito narrates the proceedings, which unfold with quick wit and poignancy, deftly balancing humor (as well as sex and profanity) with deep anguish and pain.

Stop here if you haven’t finished watching the first season

Most impressively Dear White People perfects the characters introduced in the film. In the movie, racism felt like more of a character than the actual characters, but by using each episode to zero in on a single person, characters are refined. Logan Browning is Samantha White (she’s Tracee Ellis-Ross biracial, not Rashida Jones biracial), whose frank observations of campus racism on her radio show have her classmates and the administration twisted into knots. She’s black Winchester royalty, but her credibility is threatened by her relationship with Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) who “looks like the white guy in the picture who comes with the frame.”

Sam’s joined by journalist and gay man Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), whose placer is cemented when he leads the charge to shut down the blackface party. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is Lionel’s roommate and crush, wilting beneath the pressures of his father. Reggie (Marque Richardson), the closest to Sam’s equal in radical sensibility, also carries a torch for her. Even supporting characters like Sam’s bestie Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) and Kenyan exchange student Rashid (Jeremy Tardy) are easy and instantaneous favorites.

Jeremy Tardy, Nia Jervier, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Jemar Michael, Marque Richardson (Adam Rose/Netflix)

Jeremy Tardy, Nia Jervier, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Jemar Michael, Marque Richardson (Adam Rose/Netflix)

But Colandrea “Coco” Connors (Antoinette Robertson) is a standout. A wig-wearing black Barbie, she seems to be the total opposite of former friend Sam, but they have more in common than it first appears. Coco’s hyper-aware of how limited she is as a dark-skinned black woman, and is trying to game the system the only way she can: by toning down her blackness in exchange for status. Despite her conflict with Sam (perhaps because of it), they make up one of the show’s most interesting relationships (punctuated by gold blunts as olive branches).

Like Sam and Coco, most of the characters are often at odds. Though they can come together for an episode of Defamation (the show’s Scandal-esque soap), they disagree on how to tackle the racism they deal with daily. Sam’s more radical activism draws eyes but also ire, while Troy’s attempts to walk the line usually ends in talking but no actual change. At one point it culminates in the creation of a “Wokeymon Go” app that lets users decide who’s woke or not, but the narrative never decides who’s right or wrong. Rather, all these people are on the same side, and their real enemy is racism.

Chapter Five, directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, marks the midpoint of the season and brings a swift end to the days of arguing about microaggressions on campus as cops hold Reggie at gunpoint. It’s a tense and emotional moment, as unexpected to the viewer as it is to Reggie and his friends, all of whom are paralyzed, horrified, and in the aftermath, unsure of whether to take time to process or to fight back.

That’s the question at the Dear White People’s center. Where does life end and activism begin? Can you actually separate the two when your activism is your life? If you take a break, how long can you go before racism raises its head again? Sam keeps her relationship with Gabe a secret because a white boyfriend doesn’t seem to mesh with her pro-black activism. Reggie, after his encounter with the cops, refuses to turn his pain into protest like everyone wants. And when Armstrong-Parker, their on-campus home and solace is threatened, another protest might mean losing it for good, but staying silent isn’t an attractive option either.

Some may be surprised to find Dear White People delving into dramas you’d expect to see in a primetime soap. Like Sam’s love triangle with Reggie and Gabe or Troy’s affair with a professor (which isn’t that relevant in the grand scheme, but that professor is Nia Long so it’s pretty relevant). When a star football player abruptly died, I almost expected it to become a murder mystery (it’s actually just so white people on campus can derail Sam’s finale protest with their own against drinking). But these seeming detours are there to highlight how much more there is to black life than racism and fighting against racism, even if these characters aren’t sure how to balance both.

Fortunately for them, Dear White People is.

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