Dear White Peo­ple has much to do with con­flict­ing voices

Net­flix adap­ta­tion mixes per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal sto­ries to of­fer the best of both worlds

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - ROBERT LLOYD

In the ap­peal­ing new Net­flix com­edy “Dear White Peo­ple,” Justin Simien ex­pands his 2014 movie about black life at a mostly white Ivy League col­lege into a 10-part se­ries. That this re­view is writ­ten by a white per­son would mat­ter to some of the char­ac­ters within the con­text of the se­ries, but some of those char­ac­ters would also won­der whether it should. It’s an is­sues-based So­cratic com­edy, of sorts, in which some­one is nearly al­ways ban­ter­ing, de­bat­ing or ar­gu­ing; but it’s a ro­man­tic com­edy as well, and a col­lege com­edy in a long tra­di­tion of them.

The se­ries has a sort of round-robin struc­ture, each episode fo­cus­ing on a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter, mov­ing the story for­ward as it re­plays ear­lier ac­tion in new con­text, adding back sto­ries and side plots for depth and breadth. (It’s a lit­tle like the Net­flix sea­son of “Ar­rested Devel­op­ment” in that re­gard.)

At its axis, more or less, is Winch­ester Univer­sity stu­dent Sa­man­tha White (Lo­gan Brown­ing). A “ju­nior me­dia-stud­ies ma­jor and lo­cal provo­ca­teur,” Sam hosts a col­legera­dio pro­gram called “Dear White Peo­ple,” in which she takes calls and talks mainly about how white peo­ple get black peo­ple wrong, even when act­ing out of what they per­ceive as gen­uine in­ter­est or broth­erly/sis­terly good will. Sam is bira­cial, but as best friend Joelle (Ash­ley Blaine Feather­son) tells her, “You’re not Rashida Jones bira­cial, you’re Tracee El­lis Ross bira­cial — peo­ple think of you as black.”

“Dear White Peo­ple,” Sam says to her ra­dio au­di­ence, early in the story. “Here’s a list of ac­cept­able Hal­loween cos­tumes. A pi­rate, slutty nurse, any of our first 43 pres­i­dents. Top of the list un­ac­cept­able cos­tumes, me.” As in the film, a “black­face party” held by white stu­dents has caused a stir — through per­haps not enough of a stir — on cam­pus. (“Google it,” we are ad­vised, to know whether such things are real; I did, they are.)

Char­ac­ter-defin­ing ac­tion, re­ac­tion and rev­e­la­tion will fol­low, but by split­ting the nar­ra­tive among dif­fer­ent points of view, Simien keeps his story fluid and mean­ings in play. None of his char­ac­ters knows ev­ery­thing; each is wrong some­times. The ti­tle notwith­stand­ing, the se­ries has much to do with con­flict­ing voices within the school’s black community — who speaks for the peo­ple, how do they speak, who is woke and who is not, and is it safe to ad­mit that one has been se­cretly stream­ing “The Cosby Show”?

The se­ries feels a lit­tle over­stuffed at first with signs and sig­ni­fiers, as pop-cul­tural names and phe­nom­ena set the scene and char­ac­ters be­gin to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves, both from other char­ac­ters and from the fa­mil­iar school-com­edy types they at first seem to rep­re­sent: the jock, the nerd, the queen bee, the an­gry dude, the for­eign stu­dent, the in­suf­fi­ciently de­fined best friend. In­deed, deep down, “Dear White Peo­ple” is very much a story of evolv­ing iden­tity, not just racial or sex­ual but the more gen­eral work of young peo­ple fig­ur­ing out who they are and what in the world they want. (There is a mil­len­nial as­pect to the se­ries as well; at times it could be called “Dear Old Peo­ple.”)

Some of what they want, of course, is one an­other. Sam has a white boyfriend, se­cretly at first; fel­low film en­thu­si­ast Gabe ( John Pa­trick Ame­dori). News of his ex­is­tence will sur­prise Joelle be­cause, as she re­minds Sam, they “met in the com­ments sec­tion of that Medium ar­ti­cle you wrote, ‘Don’t Fall in Love with Your Op­pres­sor: A Black Girls’ guide to Love at Winch­ester.” (“It got so many likes,” Sam re­mem­bers wist­fully.)

Sam’s old boyfriend, Troy (Bran­don P. Bell, repris­ing his film role), who rows for the crew and is son of the dean, is also around, room­ing with the awk­ward Lionel (DeRon Hor­ton), who works on the school pa­per and is sleep­ing with Coco (An­toinette Robert­son), who also has a his­tory with Sam. And then there’s Reg­gie (Mar­que Richard­son, also from the film), who likes some­body, and is liked by some­body, and so on.

The se­ries’ in­ex­tri­ca­ble mix of the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal makes for the best of both worlds in the end, be­cause Simien is sweet with his char­ac­ters, who are, fi­nally, sweet with one an­other. Prin­ci­ples mat­ter here, but peo­ple mat­ter more.


Lo­gan Brown­ing, left, hosts a col­lege ra­dio pro­gram in "Dear White Peo­ple." An­toinette Robert­son, right, plays Coco.

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