Culture

Netflix's Dear White People Offers TV's Most Compelling Vision of Progressivism

Justin Simien's Incredibly Sharp, Sexy Portrait of Collegiate Life Is Even Better the Second Time Around

By Sam Eichner ·
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Saeed Adyani/Netflix

The cast of university students in Dear White People are smarter than even the smartest college kids. They’re hotter, and hipper, and wittier. They have better taste in music and clothes, books and film. They’re more woke, more defiant, more articulate and intellectually curious. They care and feel more, are more self-righteous yet equally more self-aware. They make the best references. They have better sex. Dear White People is to black student life what American Pie is to hedonistic white frat stars: a mirror that reflects an ideal.

This is central to Dear White People’s massive appeal, though it also serves as welcome counterbalance to what, on a less entertaining show, could amount to didacticism. Its second season—the entirety of which dropped last Friday on Netflix—based on Justin Simien’s movie of the same name, picks up pretty much where the first season left off. As the result of a fire during a protest at the fictional Ivy League school, Winchester University, white students have been integrated into the historically black residence hall, Armstrong Parker. Racial tensions were already at an all-time high, after a cop pulled a gun on a black student, Reggie (in the best episode of the first season, directed by Barry Jenkins); and after the intrepid student journalist, Lionel (DeRon Horton), brought to light the racist and censorious policies of the Hancocks, a legacy family responsible for funding the university newspaper, The Independent. Growing pains aside—Reggie’s new roommate is so white, he calls his parents by their first names, and is “always asking if I’ve heard of Chance the Rapper”—the show’s passionate protagonist, Sam White (Logan Browning), who hosts the university’s eponymous radio show, is being trolled by an anonymous alt-right blogger. Meanwhile, the perfectionist “white whisperer,” Coco (Antoinette Robinson), is still attempting to unify the black students on campus, as her ex-beau/former golden boy, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell)—the son of the dean—embarks on a journey of self-discovery, involving mushrooms, distasteful stand-up comedy and a talking dog. In general, the dynamic of the new Armstrong Parker also reverses a woefully outdated dichotomy in pop culture: rather than the black outsider trying to fit in with the predominantly white group, it’s the white students who must do the work to fit in with the predominantly black one. (And the white viewers, too.)

Dear White People still relies on a loosely Rashomon-esque method of storytelling, even if its plotting isn’t quite as elaborate as it was in the first season. Many of these episodes, rather, tend to tackle a different element of contemporary black life through the lens of a particular character. Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), who takes the “cool best friend” trope to new heights, mistakenly falls for a “hotep.” Coco becomes pregnant, with Troy’s baby, and struggles with whether or not to keep it, in light of her career and social justice ambitions. In one of the best of these episodes, Troy deals with the oppressive weight of his father’s expectations, as well as the weight of what seems, to him, like the entire black community. Unlike a rebellious rich white kid—itself a kind of collegiate pop culture archetype—he’s soberly reminded of how challenging it may be to “find himself” in a society that wants to see him fail.

In addition to this narrative device, Simien also places many of the new episodes within the context of Winchester’s history. Troy’s episode, for example, starts with an explanation of how the university’s legacy program perpetuates a predominantly white student body, while Joelle’s begins by tracing the origins of admittance to the Ivys from her private high school, Woodlawn Academy. Both serve to accentuate the fact that the obstacles its black students face in the present are inseparable from those faced by black students throughout history—that the current status of African Americans, and the less blatant racism of today, are still tethered to the systemic racism of the past. 

Yet the trick of Dear White People is that, despite its on-the-nose debates about race in America, it never feels overwrought or bogged down. So entertainingly does it sew its weightier notions into the fabric of collegiate life—obviously Troy would get “sympathy pussy” from white girls on campus, and encourage Reggie to do the same—that you simply don’t care if or how much you’re being “lectured” to. The most compelling episode of the season is essentially an exegesis of white guilt and black female pain wrapped up in a titillating will-they-won’t-they between ex-lovers Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), a sensitive white MFA student, and Sam, who cheated on him. It’s Dear White People at its best: an intellectual dialectic Trojan horsed into your noggin through character-level sexual and romantic tension (or vice versa, depending on how you look at it).

Stylistically and otherwise, Simien's natural forefather here is Spike Lee—a director who also adapted one of his movies, She’s Gotta Have It, into a shiny new series for Netflix. But She’s Gotta Have It, while it had its moments, was wildly uneven—it either took itself too seriously or not seriously enough. Some entire plot lines, like a supporting character’s illegal butt implants, were downright silly; others were too overtly dogmatic for my taste. Simien, by contrast, never lets the politics of the show get in the way of the show itself. In this way, Dear White People functions much more like The West Wing; Simien’s hyper-articulate characters do for social justice what Aaron Sorkin’s did for liberal policymaking. They make checking your privilege and generally giving a shit cool. 

There is, of course, no shortage of progressive politics on TV. But of the showrunners who have attempted to tackle it head on, Simien has fared better than most (or all). Alan Ball is perhaps the gravest offender thus far; his series, Here and Now, which premiered on HBO earlier this year, is a suffocating, self-serious affair. Its progressivism feels belabored, flaccid and decidedly unchill. Compare that to Simien’s, whose au courant characters spout pointed cultural references to the sunken place and “Kirkland Signature Ann Coulter,” dress like “Che Guvara at fashion week,” are all immaculately fit (even the quote-unquote "nerd," Lionel) and fuck like soft-core porn stars.

More than other shows, Dear White People forces a critic—particularly a white one—to think about whom, exactly, it is for. And maybe it should be obvious: it’s right there in the name. Though it would be unfair to endow a show with a certain undue social responsibility, just because it’s about minority students. Still, to the extent that it is for white people, the series offers not just in content but form TV’s most compelling vision of progressivism yet. 

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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