An immediate thought came to my head after watching the first episode of Dear White People, just how much better it was than the film.
The film developed a solid following for its deep political message and attempt at engaging in a conversation about race in the United States of America. While the film spread itself thin in its 90 minute run time, five hours was more than enough time to get to know all of the key players as each episode (save for the finale) shined a spotlight on someone different. This gave each episode the feeling of feeling like an individual story as part of a greater narrative while also making the show unpredictable.
Justin Simien’s vision also gets jazzed up special guest directors and writers. Barry Jenkins of Moonlight fame directed the most powerful and best episode of the season, an episode that jumpstarts the show from a television show about a racist party (the same party that took place at the end of the film version) into something much richer.
Dear White People is not afraid to meander and take the time to do the very things modern films don’t allow their characters to do, engage in meaningful conversations which may not directly relate to the plot. One of my favorite scenes of the whole season takes place in the aforementioned episode five when characters look directly into the camera and comment on how director Quentin Tarantino uses race in his films.
Part of what has made the Netflix model frustrating is an insistence on 13 episodes seasons with one hour episodes. If there’s one thing that shows such as Atlanta, Transparent, and even Netflix’s own Bojack Horsemen, it’s that the half hour model greatly benefits certain kinds of storytelling and allows viewers to consume a show in a more digestible fashion.
Part of what inspired me to write about this show is there’s so much great television out there on various networks and streaming services. Very few touch on the issues Dear White People do. This is a show that isn’t afraid to portray the antagonists as protagonists and vis a versa. Many characters (mostly black but even one white character) get an episode to himself, get a chance to shine. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the black experience isn’t universal. What gets lost in the noise of segmenting people into various factions and groups is that everyone’s story is different. We are all the way we are for various reasons. It would be easy to call certain characters betrayers to their race, not woke enough, or missing the whole point in the first place.
Although the show has its difficult moments, it is also not afraid to be genuinely funny and allow viewers a chance to breathe. Simien and his collaborators clearly wanted to satirize many different aspects of the Westchester campus. Although Tessa Thompson cannot be replaced, Logan Browning as Samantha does an admirable job. All of the actors fit into their roles well with some even reprising their movie roles.
By the end of the season, I looked back and thought, “This is what Orange is the New Black should be.” Both shows purport to show underrepresented viewpoints and a look inside a world mainstream i.e. white audience may not be used to seeing. The bloated episode and season length as well as an incredibly unlikeable main character insures a show like that can never live up to its billing. Even if you don’t like Samantha, there are numerous other who get their own chance to shine. Dear White People the film was at times powerful but unfocused. Dear White People the television show is one of the best and most engaging seasons of television Netflix has ever produced.