Dear White People Season 1 Review: A Flame-Igniting Masterpiece of Character and Structure

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I don’t think there’s a soul on the planet who couldn’t benefit from watching Netflix’s inaugural season of this film-to-television adaptation. Black, white, man, woman, gay, straight, young, old, woke, sheltered, there’s a universal quality to Dear White People that everyone can relate to and learn from. But you wouldn’t know it from the numbers online right now. To contrast it’s 100% approval rating by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the user rating for the series on IMDB is a pitiful 4.8. This severe of a disconnect between critics and audiences can only be attributed to one thing: racism. Now I know some of you reading this will scoff at that. That’s okay, you’re likely not the show’s target audience. But goddammit maybe you should be.

Dear White People is an aggressive title, and the poster has an even more aggressive tagline: “Bet you think this show is about you.” Thankfully, it isn’t. The show frequently dives into institutional racism, showcasing all the big and little ways the primarily white student body of faux-ivy Winchester subject the black student body to racism. Much like the film, however, it also dives into all the cultural expectations within the black community. Our lead, Samantha White (Logan Browning, terrific) gets flack for dating a white guy, Gabe (John Patrick Amedori). Aspiring school president Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) is accused of subduing his peers’ voices. There’s no long-lasting comfort for anyone, and that’s a huge part of why this show works.

Another is Justin Simien, returning to the world after writing and directing the 2014 sleeper hit film on which the show is based to more fulfillingly explore his vision. Serving as creator and showrunner, he writes and directs throughout the season, sprinkling in other talents and voices throughout to keep things fresh (Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins directs the seminal fifth episode, for instance). A congregation of voices is exactly what Dear White People is about, which gives way to its innovative, thoughtful seasonal structure. Every episode of the season, save for the culminating finale, circulates around one of six characters. Samantha, Troy, and Gabe are joined by Lionel (DeRon Horton, humbling human), a journalist for the school paper who’s also exploring his sexuality; Reggie (Marque Richardson, the only returning cast member from the film), Samantha’s fellow activist who, through difficult circumstances, has a chance to become the face of the campus’ movement; and Coco (Antionette Robertson), Samantha’s ex-roommate and Troy’s current lover, who’s background in Chicago has her seeing the school’s problems from a totally different lens. Simien has so richly drawn out these people, taking the time to go past their views and find out what makes them individually laugh and hurt. The episodic focus allows for deep dives into each of them, but the show’s plot also has them so interconnected that while we’re following one character, the show won’t hold back critical information about another, all without sacrificing the focus on its subject. It’s nothing short of masterful, proving just how much thought went into laying out this practically perfect season. In terms of serving all of its characters as strongly as possible, I have not seen a show strike a balance this seamlessly since The Leftovers did in their already classic second season.

Dear White People isn’t the most plot-heavy show, but it doesn’t need to be. There are maybe two major “events” that happen throughout the season, one nail-biting one in episode five and a concluding one in the finale, but otherwise the show devotes most of its efforts in giving this handful of diverse people a voice. Defining these people and their feelings about everything going on in the world, while also advancing their own personal growth, is where this spectacular series finds itself at its most fresh. In 2017, everyone is trying to make relevant TV, with a great many artists succeeding (it’s not called peak TV for nothing). But Dear White People puts its human characters at the forefront of the social change it would love to lead the charge on. But based on that IMDB rating, the people who are watching Dear White People probably already agree with its politics. Yet the show has them in mind too, featuring a few of them as characters and exposing their…no…our flaws. This show wasn’t made for everyone, but everyone has something to gain from watching it. Through that, with its thoughtfully built characters and necessarily loud message of mindfulness, Netflix has its hands on another home run. Grade: A

By Matt Dougherty

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