Dear bright people, watch this show
‘Dear White People’ is a provocative and layered look at Ivy League racism
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A fifth episode makes for a pretty good barometer. Some shows start off shaky in establishing their world, but by Episode 5, they’ve smoothened into something capable of winning you over. Other shows have sensational pilot episodes with crackerjack concepts but the narrative ice begins to look perilously thin after the first four episodes. This is when comedies really start showing off their rhythm, dramas switch into a more intense gear knowing they already have you by the collar, and ambitious shows lacking finesse fall by the watch-list wayside.
Sometimes, of course, they mislead, as with Netflix’s new and mostly unnecessary Girlboss, which had a wonderful and warm fifth episode that convinced me to stick around for a series I promise I’ve already forgotten. And sometimes—when we’re truly lucky—one episode comes along that is so extraordinary it immediately derails all binge-watching plans because it leaves us too stunned to move on.
The fifth episode of Justin Simien’s Dear White People is one such masterwork, a provocative, insightful and deeply sensitive telling of a story we need to watch and ponder and question. A 10-episode Netflix original series, it takes off from Simien’s scathing and hyper-intelligent 2014 film of the same name—also, conveniently enough, available on Netflix—a satire about Ivy League racism based around an appalling—and, it turns out, appallingly believable—blackface party attended by white students.
Simien tells the same story here but, thanks to a 10-episode canvas, focuses on a different character with each episode. It’s like what Mitchell Hurwitz tried to do with that last season of Arrested Development but executed seamlessly enough to make this show work better than the film. A show about identity and racial politics, about activism and perspectives, about the need to break something in order to fix it, Dear White People is explosively good. And, though you might not expect it, sharply funny.
Anyway, back to Episode 5. This episode takes us to a party, where a blazingly bright student, Reggie, a black radical activist, is letting his hair down and trouncing rivals at a quiz. He is—for the first time in the series—visibly having a good time, and his teammate, a white boy who appears genuinely fond of Reggie, exults in his trivia success. Everyone is dancing and singing along to hip hop when the white guy uses the N-word and Reggie calmly asks him not to. The boy is dumbfounded: Isn’t it okay to use the word when just singing the song, quoting the lyrics? It isn’t, says Reggie. The situation escalates, tempers flare, questions of reactions and overreactions come into play—not just for the characters, but, as is frequent on Dear White People, for the audience, to debate and mull over—when something terrible happens.
It is a moving, frightening and beautiful episode, and I waited to see who had directed it. Television is almost entirely hailed as a writer’s medium, with interchangeable directors swapping duty episode to episode, but sometimes a single episode rings out so gorgeously you have to know who called cut. This had happened to me, for instance, with Breaking Bad and “Fly”—a Looney Tunes-ian episode from the third season that switched the grim show’s gear into straight-faced slapstick, without missing a beat—which turned out to be directed by Rian Johnson, who made Looper and Brick. Turns out Episode 5 of Dear White People is by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, and it is exquisite.
Dear White People gets its title from a college radio show, hosted by leading lady Samantha White, a confident and self-assured biracial student who enjoys calling black students out for their “Uncle Tom-foolery” as much as she does white students for their casual racism and, well, their blackface party attendance. The fiery Sam is finding her most effective activist voice while also falling for a white boy who, according to her gloriously glib friend Joelle, looks like “the white dude in the picture that comes with the frame”. And, despite the N-word fracas of Episode 5, one of the things amusing Sam most about dating a white guy is the fact that she can use that word for him—and he can’t.
That is what makes Dear White People special, the fact that we have narratives and multiple perspectives overlapping, and that there is more to each character than initially appears. In its need to make forceful points, the film slotted these astute and articulate kids into types, but the series allows Simien to peel back the masks and find out what’s lurking behind each label. First impressions are often misleading. The way we, the audience, perceive each character shifts noticeably as the series whizzes on—even as their individual perceptions change.
The performances are uniformly solid, highlighted by Brandon P. Bell as Troy, Antoinette Robertson as Coco, Ashley Blaine Featherson as Joelle, Logan Browning as Sam and Marque Richardson as Reggie, and it helps that they get to play such complex roles. For example, a few scenes after Troy—a “legacy kid” and son of the dean, the most unflappably cool cat on campus, the biggest player around—gives his roommate a haircut, we see this question in his Internet search history: “Does giving your closeted roommate a haircut with your shirt off and The Softones playing make you a tease?”
(You know what, Troy? It just might.)
Power. Privilege. Race. Legacy. Sexism. Identity. These are subjects it is hard to imagine a comedy grappling with, though given the absurdity regularly born of them, what other genre could dare?
This is a show with a world view, a show that engages us on a personal and an emotional level, and humanizes those we may lazily have tagged “not our type”. It is all our type, it is all our problem. Dear White People, both in cinematic lineage and intent, tries to do the right thing.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. The writer tweets at @RajaSen