‘Dear White People’ Makes a Great Case for the Pop-Culture Do-Over
A movie that should always have been a television show gets a second chance
Another week and another thing for conservative snowflakes to get upset about. This time, white nationalists are pissed at Netflix for releasing a show they don’t like.
A show that never should have been on the air at all, considering it’s essentially a better version of a failed 2014 film.
In case you’re keeping score, this is the second time the so-called alt-right has thrown a tantrum about the streaming service’s choices. In March 2017, the nationalists pitched a fit when Netflix released a mediocre Amy Schumer special no one much liked.
This time, the conservative snowflakes are upset over Dear White People. The title was enough to send the fragile community into apoplectic shock. Search for the show on YouTube and you’ll see more vloggers complaining about Netflix’s alleged racism than you will see advertisements for the show.
Shame. They should watch it. I think the show’s take on U.S. race relations might surprise them. If reactionaries took the time to sit through the show’s five-hour first season, they’d get to see a progressive character suffer the consequences of her self-righteous actions.
They won’t watch. But that’s okay. Dear White People isn’t interested in explaining race-relations to white folk. That’s part of what makes it so great.
Dear White People tells the story of Winchester University— a fictional Ivy League college somewhere on the East Coast. It’s a mostly white campus with a black dean and an activist black student body.
Samantha White is the mixed-race woman at the center of the show. She hosts a talk show on the campus radio station called Dear White People, where she basically calls white people on their racist bullshit.
“Dear white people,” she croons into a microphone, “having a black vibrator does not count as an interracial relationship.” White antagonizes all the rich Caucasians on campus. She’s also incredibly flawed.
The show begins with a black-face party run by a campus humor magazine. Frat bros don black makeup and ghetto attire while rap music blares from giant speakers. White stands in the middle of it all, filming the whole thing for her documentary class. Lionel, a young black journalist, organizes a protest and trashes the party. It quickly becomes national news.
That black-face party drives the first few episodes. Each installment drills down on one of the participants and explores their reaction to the party, as well as their actions in the immediate aftermath. But the black-face party and the larger plot isn’t the point of Dear White People.
This is show about characters. To writer-director Justin Simien’s credit, Dear White People is not a polemic. It doesn’t preach. It explores believable characters in a big, complicated country that’s been fighting over race for hundreds of years.
White — for example — is a mixed-race woman with strong political feelings. But she’s got a white boyfriend, and that doesn’t sit well with her black peers. She’s also a natural troublemaker who struggles to explain what exactly she wants when another character presses her about it.
Colandrea ‘Coco’ Conners is a brilliant black woman who wants White and all the “race-baiters” such as White to just shut the fuck up. She’s a born politician, interested in using Winchester to create contacts and climb the social ladder.
In Conner’s eyes, people such as White just make everything harder for everyone else. She believes that white people appropriate black culture because they want to be like black people — and that’s not a bad thing.
Lionel the journalist struggles with his identity. He’s a timid, queer black kid who has never fit in anywhere. A flashback to a high school Halloween party, which he attends in costume as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Geordi La Forge, is both brilliant and sad — and the kind of character moment that elevates Dear White People above the movie that inspired it.
Second chances are rare in American life and non-existent in the unforgiving world of Hollywood. Netflix’s Dear White People is the second screen adaptation of the Simien’s property in just four years. And that’s a damned miracle.
Back in 2014, Simien charmed the indie film world with a movie version of Dear White People. There was some critical buzz, but no white-nationalist trolls cared. What a difference three years make.
The movie is just okay. It’s got great ideas, beautiful photography and some fantastic monologues. But at the end of its 108-minute run-time, the 2014 Dear White People feels incomplete. It’s worth watching for the savage teardown of Gremlins, but overall the execution doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its pitch.
Three years passed and Simien got another shot at it when Netflix came calling. The 2017 television shares its name, premise and plot — and, Hell, even some of the actors — with the 2014 film. But it succeeds in all the places the film fails.
Ten episodes on a streaming service gives Simien’s characters the room to breath that they didn’t quite have in a 90-minute movie. Every episode of Dear White People focuses on one character, delves into their emotions and psyche and places them somewhere on the dangerous landscape of American race-relations. It’s brilliant … and necessary.
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