The Netflix original series Dear White People takes its name from creator Justin Simien’s breakout Sundance film. Both the film and the Netflix series delve into the lives of black students at the predominantly white Winchester University, a competitive, fictional Ivy. The show begins in the aftermath of a blackface party thrown by the entirely white (and male) staff of campus humor magazine Pastiche. The party, themed “Dear Black People” not-so-slyly references campus activist Samantha White’s (Logan Browning) campus radio show titled “Dear White People.” Before Pastiche can throw the shindig, the school’s administration rightly shuts it down, but that doesn’t stop Pastiche from putting on it on anyway.
Dear White People uses the crises brought by Winchester’s students’ eagerness to perpetuate black stereotypes to examine the perspectives and back stories of Winchester’s black students. Here are five reasons Dear White People is well worth your watch:
The first two episodes of Dear White People might at first feel like you’re watching a shortened version of the film (you are), but hang tight until episode three, where the Netflix series expands upon that story, offering breadth to each of its many characters. The show is told through Rashomon style, examining the same event (the Pastiche party) from several characters’ differing perspectives. The movie primarily focuses on Sam and muckraking student journalist Lionel Higgins’s (DeRon Horton) perspectives, but over the course of its ten episodes, the show dives deep into the ensemble’s stories, bringing nuance and backstory to characters who only get the surface treatment in the film.
Despite taking on serious subject matter, Dear White People is never short on gags. My favorite (as well as the internet’s) is “Defamation,” the Scandal parody that Winchester’s black student body gathers to hate-watch every week in the lounge of the Anderson Parker House. And Defamation turns up the simmering melodrama of Scandal to straight up camp in a hilarious, loving homage.
Dear White People’s main cast is comprised predominantly of unknowns (with the welcome exception of the narrator, voiced by none other than Giancarlo Esposito), and their nuanced roles give the actors a chance to actually show off their talents. The gamut of new personalities comprises the wokest students like Sam, Reggie (Marque Richardson, reprising his role in the film) and Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), to those who’ve decided to use other survival tactics to navigate a predominantly white world, like Troy (Brandon P. Bell, also returning from the movie) and Coco (Antoinette Robinson). Dear White People has some great broader characters as well, though it’s tough to imagine how the dumb frat boy Thane (Brant Daugherty) and Kelsey (Nia Jervier, whose character could’ve stepped straight out of Clueless) ever could have gotten into Winchester. But the show does everyone a service by actually introducing these actors to a much wider audience, and hopefully we’ll be seeing much more of them.
Being able to go into the characters’ stories more deeply makes each of them more nuanced,
but also makes their actions clearer and more relatable. It’d be easy to see a character like Coco Connors as a villain (and in fact, the film somewhat paints her that way), but on the show, we see her alienation at parties as a freshman—how she and Sam were once friends but their differing politics drove a wedge between them. We see how Lionel struggles as a gay man and a quote-unquote nerd, but ultimately grows a gutsiness in his writing that pushes him into leadership. Dear White People effectively portrays the experience of being being an outsider and it treats its characters with empathy, never taking sides or telling you what to think. The only character that I wish it delved into more is Joelle, the funny loyal friend who’s a fierce activist with her own secret crush.
All this brings me to Reggie’s episode. Throughout the series, Marque Richardson is given the space to show the many sides of Reggie—from his overeager crush on Sam since their freshman year to the campus activist advocating change, the ace student who “knows your history better than you and I know my own.” While white audiences will never truly understand the experience of living every day as a black person in the United States, Reggie’s episode also takes the viewer by the hand to provide a deeply empathetic illustration of what it does to a person to have your humanity stripped away simply because of your race. And the emotional aftermath—the trauma—that DWP shows Reggie struggling with afterward is a heartbreaking, necessary watch.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, The Hairpin, Splitsider and Screener, and her humor writing has run in McSweeney’s and National Lampoon.