May 1, 2017

TV Retrospective: "Dear White People" - Season 1

Earlier this year, there was a loud outcry over Netflix's decision to release a show called Dear White People. The true irony can be found in the fact that with that one trailer release, it felt like the series got more conversation than the Justin Simien-directed movie that spawned it. The 2014 film tackled race relations on a collegiate level, showing various levels of truth and hypocrisy within a cast of characters that ranged in beliefs in interests. Its depiction of young black America may be one of the more successfully diverse films in recent years. While the series doesn't forget about the movie - in some ways repeating its plot points - it does fee like it's more vital than ever. A lot has changed since 2014, and the series has decided to tackle them all through honesty and humor. With all of the characters returning, it's a miracle that it's as good as the movie, and in some ways destined to be more crucial. 
With narration from Giancarlo Esposito, the show's subversive take on race is immediately found in its title cards depicting prestigious college organizations. College is a place of respect and intelligence, yet there's also a knowing sense that it's a place of learning through embarrassing mistakes. Over the course of the first few episodes, there are flashbacks to the inciting riot of the film involving a party with blackface. What initially follows is the hangover of sorts, with many trying to have a conversation about the conflict. On one side, blacks find the stereotype offense. On the other, whites claim that it's a sign of respect and that they want to be black. As Esposito points out, this still happens. People still do dumb things with the belief that there won't be consequences. What follows is evidence that this simply isn't true, even for the side that is closer to the progressive truth.
One of the reasons that the series works is that it expands on the ideas set in motion by the movie. Several of the episodes serve as character studies that show the diverse cast that includes the student body president (Brandon P. Bell), the gay journalist (DeRon Horton), and the political activist DJ (Logan Browning). They each get their chance to explore the day-to-day behavior in their search for identity. Some are less successful than others, but the general tone of the movie shines in every scene. There's plenty of banter on race, but there's also a realization that it's impossible to be black and not like a few white things. There's also cliques within the community that complicated matters, showing that the answer isn't just in color. What the show does best is show black characters being allowed to pursue many interests while, from a tonal standpoint, not be judged or them.
Dear White People is one of the most successful shows in exploring race relations in America in 2017. Despite having several politically active characters, the show never panders to a specific ideal. It may have diatribes about why white people cannot say certain words, but it shows the consequences of being right. There's a backlash that isn't always immediate, but bound to raise some tension. Whites may still be classified as the group who need to learn about diversity, but every character needs to learn some ways to be less selfish. The genius comes that most of this set-up feels like one of the most entertaining college debates. Yes, that makes it feel stilted in some ways, but the cast quickly adapts to their situation well enough to make it entertaining.
The final half of the season transitions to a slightly darker theme. When a school security officer pulls a gun on Reggie (Marque Richardson), it starts a campus division. Was the move done with the best of intentions, or was Reggie being profiled? While no character dies in the shoe, the trauma of gun violence becomes central to the conversation in the back half. Suddenly it recalls the events that happened in the interim following Dear White People's premiere at Sundance in 2014. There were police shootings on young black men such as Trayvon Martin. Many have tried to explore the topic without becoming too preachy. Dear White People finds the loophole by showing the frustrations between activism (Black Lives Matter) and ignoring  the problem (All Lives Matter). It's not easy to accept, but the race discussion was not solved by the end of the 10 episodes. In fact, the final moments of the season feature a new moment of distress arising as the cast shrugs and says that it's been a long night.
There's a lot to admire about Dear White People, and that includes its cast and writers. By expanding on the universe that Simien set up, the show has managed to find a deeper understanding of contemporary humanity. It isn't just a show about race relations, but how everyone takes things personally. There's even an episode dedicated to a supporting white character who mispeaks once or twice. The best part of the series is that it's neither too convenient nor entirely unrealistic. America 2017 is a very divided place, and Netflix has found the perfect show to reflect this. One can only imagine in presumed subsequent seasons that the debate will only continue to grow, and thus the show only continues to be one of Netflix's best shows period.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

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