Review: ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’ Elevates the Conversation

The second season of Justin Simien’s collegiate satire expands its scope while sharpening its edge.

Is this a movement, or a primal scream?     –Gabe

Both.     –Sam

I love watching a good show make the leap. The first season of Dear White People, adapted by Justin Simien from his 2014 film, was good television. It had a deep ensemble, appealing style, and overcame sight-unseen criticism (based on its “inflammatory” title) with a run of episodes as nuanced as they were honest. In the wake of the 2016 election, DWP could have been more brazen, slaughtered more sacred cows, narrowed its perspective to only what mattered to Simien and his characters, and enjoyed a fierce but tiny audience. Instead, it looked to generate empathy. “Chapter V,” directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, was a masterpiece, climaxing with a fateful encounter between one student (Reggie, played with rueful intensity by Marque Richardson) and an overeager campus cop. One year later, that sequence is just as chilling.

That episode set the tone for the series going forward. No longer searching for its voice or how to justify its existence, like the squabbling activists of Armstrong-Parker House, DWP would build on hard-won character development: care about these students as human beings, and you’ll care about their causes. Season 2, which landed on Netflix this past weekend, does all of that and more in ten airtight episodes. By turns hilarious, shocking, and poignant, it’s as much a vital document of “post-post-racial America” as it is a compelling character study.

Yep, there’s now a rival “Dear Right People.” It’s as bad as it sounds.

Picking up nearly where Season 1 left off, Winchester College remains in perpetual crisis. A-P House is dealing with an influx of refugees from burned-down Davis Hall, which is upending their already-fragile ecosystem. Reggie is in mandatory therapy and bristling as his story takes on a life of its own. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), after smashing a window at last season’s protest, has discarded his “Golden Boy” persona and abdicated his responsibilities. Coco (Antoinette Robinson) sees a political opportunity, but soon faces a wrenching personal decision. Lionel (DeRon Horton), despite no longer having a newspaper to write for, is trying to investigate Winchester’s secret societies — a mystery that percolates throughout the season, encouraged by Giancarlo Esposito’s reliably wry narration even as the school flashbacks get increasingly troubling.

And Sam, in an extraordinary turn by Logan Browning, is trying to regain control of the narrative: her school’s, her radio show’s, her own life’s. An assault from alt-right social media trolls is too much bait for her to pass up, but it opens up avenues for hurt that she only thought she was prepared for. She also still misses Gabe (John Patrick Amadori), but she hates him, too, almost as much as she hates the cage she feels trapped in. In a season that deftly covers topics ranging from freedom of speech, sexuality, LGBT issues, abortion, and old-fashioned institutional racism, its most compelling thread has always been identity. Not in the way that some people smugly dismiss “identity politics,” but deeply personal: What is my community? Who is my neighbor? Who am I? How much of what I show to the world is my authentic self, and what’s just a performance?

The Coco episode, written by Njeri Brown and directed by Kimberly Pierce, handles tough subject matter with grace.

It’s telling that when Sam begs Coco in “Chapter IV” to get more engaged, to fight for real progress instead of just enjoying the awed fealty of their temporary neighbors (while unilaterally ruling on what behavior constitutes as “problematic,” another recurring theme this season), she tells her “You can’t be neutral on a moving train” — a phrase coined in the 1960s by white historian and activist Howard Zinn. Much of the first season’s battles weren’t an Us vs. Them but more internal, focused on shades of blackness and who represented the cause well (and who sold out). That issue hasn’t gone away this year, but it’s backgrounded somewhat as Sam realizes that the threat from the racist alt-right isn’t the death rattle from the losing side, but something more potent and permanent.

The battle for public spaces bleeds onto the largest public space there is, the internet, where the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world (represented here by a surprising heel turn from a supporting character) leave a trail of lives destroyed by psychological warfare and reckless invasions of privacy. Hanging bananas on Sam’s doorknob is one thing. Sending her parents vile e-cards is another. And so Sam wrestles with whether to show vulnerability, to show that these things hurt, or to remain stoic and possibly encourage the trolls to try harder. But the white audience for Sam’s radio screeds falls into two categories: those hostile to her personhood, and those who take her reprimands as medicinal self-flagellation.

For Joelle, the battle is simply to be seen, period.

We’re in a fascinating moment right now for black artistry, as this weekend also saw the release of Donald Glover/Childish Gambino’s music video for “This is America“: an incendiary work of video art that will take weeks to fully unpack. I’m not saying, of course, that its extraordinary quality is unique to black art. But the overwhelming and demographically-diverse response to it, especially for something so challenging and, like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, an indictment of the white voices that champion it loudest (being distracted by Glover’s GIF-ready dancing while black people suffer and die in the background) is unique.

I don’t feel equipped to analyze just what that means, but I do recognize the hollowness of appreciating “This is America” or Dear White People on the merits, taking our medicine, cheering on the truth-tellers, then turning it off and moving on to the next distraction so someone else can do the hard work of actually carrying it forward. Reggie doesn’t want sympathy, and he doesn’t want to keep talking about what happened to him. He wants so-called “woke” white people to talk about it with their friends. This series is a rich text, brilliantly structured, and sporting all the hallmarks of great satire, but the worst possible response to it is to say “well, that was fun,” and not engage with what it’s saying. I type this to remind myself as much as whoever’s reading it.

Which brings me to “Chapter VIII,” the season’s standout episode and best half-hour of television this year short of Atlanta’s “Teddy Perkins” (and no, I don’t think that’s a coincidence), and to Gabe. Poor Gabe, who tries hard to be an ally, and feels frustrated that it’s never quite enough. Gabe, who attempts to make a documentary called “Am I Racist?” by interviewing his friends at Armstrong-Parker, secretly hoping that they will answer in the negative and assuage his guilt. Gabe’s a fascinating character precisely because he’s written with the same complexity as Troy or Reggie. It’d be easy to make him a cipher or the surrogate for the show’s white viewers, just as it’d be easy to make him the punching bag, but Simien doesn’t do either.

In an episode written by Jack Moore and directed by Simien himself, Gabe and Sam have it out — race relations on campus, Sam’s responsibility in stoking the flames, Gabe’s general cluelessness about the realities of the black experience, just what happened to their relationship, everything. It’s a two-hander, a classic bottle episode, and once things get personal and the interview leaves the recording booth, the camera gets more active and the takes get longer. It’s an engaging and thought-provoking piece of television. Most importantly, it doesn’t fall into both sides-ism even if Sam and Gabe agree on more issues than they disagree. “You’re Elvis, and I’m Chuck Berry,” she tells him. Sam’s veiled narcissism (and deep-buried shame from having a white father) don’t undermine the rationale for her activism: she wants to provoke people out of indifference. If people respond with agreement, then she’s planted a seed. If they respond with hate, then at least “it’s easier to fight an enemy you can see.”

If a documentary doesn’t have a bias, it’s probably not very interesting.

Conversely, Gabe’s good intentions don’t excuse how ineffective his methods are. You can’t have reconciliation by skipping steps. Even — or perhaps especially — for this group of young adults, who by attending Winchester are more privileged than most regardless of race, we keep coming back to this idea of performance: Is Gabe actually helping, or does he just want to look like he’s helping? It’s good to listen to the stories and attend a rally, but what is Gabe actually sacrificing? Who is he actually inspiring? Sam believes in the power of her platform, but sees a glimpse of a terrifying possible future in Rikki Carter, a seemingly vacuous, ideologically flexible TV personality who has simply figured the easiest way to make her mark. (Fascinatingly, Carter is played by Tessa Thompson, who was the original Sam in the Dear White People film. It’s got layers.)

That all of this heavy thematic lifting is done with razor-sharp quips and style to burn, including elegant cinematography by Topher Osborn (check out those title cards!), makes Dear White People addictive viewing. Its asynchronous storytelling reminded me in some ways of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which weaved its tapestry of caricatures into a grimly comic portrait of war in the age of bureaucracy. Simien achieves a similar deftness here, concluding on a surprising and altogether weird note that pays off many of the mysterious insignias and yellowed book pages that came before. (And yet, Lionel’s sleuthing is the series’s most conventional element; “Chapter X” is the denouement to the catharsis of episodes eight and nine.) Every episode this season ends with one of these characters looking directly to into camera. Sometimes it’s a knowing glance, like we’re in on the joke; sometimes it’s despairing. Sometimes it’s accusatory. Each time it’s a shock to the system, and hopefully, out of our complacency. The season’s final shot is no exception, except that for the first time, it also made me laugh with delight.

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