Just a white girl telling you to seriously watch this show
So, while the title may have caught your attention, this article’s title is not my own. It is in fact the title of a Netflix show based on a movie of the same name.
“Dear White People” is a narrative that takes place on the fictional Ivy League Campus of Winchester. Through the plot’s development, the characters are found to navigate topical and existing racial realities as they are worked through by students; student who are simultaneously dealing with their own individual struggles that come with being a student. The show is set in the aftermath of a racially charged scandal that occurs on campus and looks at the actions and reactions of the affected and involved students as wells as the African-American student societies on campus. The show is an entire 10 episodes long at 30 minutes an episode, once you start one, there is a good chance you will watch all 10 in one sitting.
The first five episodes basically revolve around the same event that kicks off the series, but are told from the perspective of each of the five main characters; all of whom are of African descent, but with varying ideas and understanding of what that means and looks like. Having these nuanced experiences present among this group of characters, the show weaves a deeper dimension to a demographic that still too often appear reduced to a cultural trope or fulfillment of diversity quota. The final five episodes take place in the fallout of the series’ inciting incident and builds to a finale that will have you googling the release date for Season 2. The show’s title is taken from Samantha (arguably the show’s main character”) White’s campus radio show in both the show and the original movie where she calls out the mundane instances of racism shamelessly and hilariously. “I didn’t create the divide I’m just calling attention to it." It’s as if Sam were breaking out and speaking not just to her campus audience but to Netflix audiences as well. And by the way the show is built, she is.
What I mean by that is the show’s form works in a way that ensures that audiences can’t help but reflect on these all too realistic problems being worked out on this fictional campus and consider their present-day relevance. The show is narrated by an all seeing and all-knowing voiceover narrator who like us, is watching the events of the show unfold and who identifies his purpose as being “to explain things they are too lazy to set up traditionally.” But this break from tradition allows for there to be all sorts of other playful set up to ensure audiences stay awake or more importantly “woke” during their program.
A quick note about my motivations behind writing this article it is not as Samantha White so eloquently put it “a prop to prove how cultured I’ve become.” It’s undeniably good, smart and made me work and think and see things that it is quite often easy to imagine doesn’t happen in a small rural excessively white place. And February being the month to celebrate African Descent heritage served as a prime time to discuss such a topical and important show.
Due to my extremely pasty background I admit that there was a definite, but obviously intentional cultural learning curve. A lot of references went over my head and yet a lot of them didn’t. The show is evidently interested in not only using it’s characters as props to discuss interracial issues but other racial problems that, by pop culture standards, get less air time. One of the key storylines revolves around a character navigating what it is like to be a black gay man, and regardless of the progress Moonlight made in calling attention to or normalizing African-American LGBTQ+ identity, it still needs to be talked about. The show’s character Lionel is heartbreakingly shy and awkward and charms audiences with his personal struggles that keep surfacing amidst the school’s racial revolution. What is interesting about this is that in the same way that characters are dealing with the balance between causes and individuals, the show is also dealing with balancing topic and character. A balance that I believe is largely struck thanks to attention to formal details.
“Dear White People” makes the most noise or the biggest impact is in its attention to, by my eyes, seemingly subtle mundane issues that in fact serve to highlight institutional racism. Specifically, to those of us privileged enough to overlook it in the everyday. But the cinematographers are keen to make sure that we cannot do so in their show. For example, (SPOILER ALERT), due to events that happen in the series there is the occasional run in with campus security (who, because this show takes place in America, carry guns? A ludicrous detail the show is sure not to let slide). In those run in’s, the camera is keen to zoom in to the officers as they interact with the black students to show that their hands immediately go to their holster. Another would be a scene from the series pilot that shows a classroom setting where slavery in history is being discussed and in a classroom of all white students and one black student the camera zooms into that student as the fellow students eyes follows and it is clear they expect this student to speak up in order to offer an “authentic perspective.”
While there are those out there who have critiqued this show for it’s almost relentless tackling of racism and the navigation of what does it mean to be black among not only white people, but among those of varying African Descent, I think the show is an incredible achievement. While it does at times lay the cultural capital on thick and slip in conversations that are almost too choreographed, there are moments where it sounds like slam poetry and the already purposeful form of the show makes it work.
Perhaps the shows best break in traditional television form is when it has its characters look into the camera’s lens. Not overtly breaking the fourth wall but subtly shifting their gaze from a conversation or from looking at a screen as if to accusingly question the audience of it’s role in solving the problems of race. As Samantha stated in the pilot, “my show is meant to articulate the feelings of a misrepresented group outside the majority. I get it the realization that you contributed to a racist society can be unsettling.” And she’s right, it is. While I can’t speak to the feelings of the misrepresented, I will continue to echo the students of Winchester and continue tuning in to see what they, and Samantha White, have to say next.