When director Justin Simien released his 2014 film Dear White People — a dramedy about racial tensions boiling over at an Ivy League campus — we heard two predominant criticisms:
1. The film’s only gay character, a black aspiring journalist named Lionel, got no love outside of being fetishized by his manipulative, white gay editor.
2. The film failed to present a stable black couple, something we rarely see in mainstream media.
Simien will seemingly resolve both issues in his upcoming Netflix series of the same name; the first two episodes of which premiered today at the SXSW Conference and Festivals.
The show picks up where the film left off: Pastiche, a satirical humor magazine at the fictional Winchester University, has just thrown a blackface party, much to the displeasure of the campus’ black dean and the larger black community (all of whom have their own agendas). Samantha, a media studies major who hosts a controversial campus radio show entitled Dear White People, wants the other black student leaders to respond forcefully, but she stops short of targeting Pastiche. Her reluctance intrigues Lionel who thinks there’s more to story than meets the eye. He’s right.
Each episode follow a different student. While Samantha gets the first episode to grapple with the unforeseen pressures of being a student leader (and having a secret white bae — gasp!), Lionel gets the entire second episode to explore his journalistic ethics and sexuality. His episode botches a opportunity to present a nuanced sexually fluid character, but by the end, Lionel (played by DeRon Horton) blossoms as a fully-realized person complete with sexual autonomy, something he never got in the film.
The first two episodes also move rather quickly, rarely moralizing or vilifying. They also provide lots of laughs as the black students watch an over-the-top spoof of Scandal and Lionel fantasizes about his hunky roommate.
Simien’s material may actually work better as a series because race and identity are topics far that need more time than is offered by a single feature-length film. The series’ ten 30-minute episodes provide more room to develop each character’s changing politics and personal relationships, raising the possibility that viewers might finally get a loving black couple and a deeper understanding that racial politics aren’t always black and white, even among black people.
Simien has also revealed that by the show’s “game-changing” fifth episode will be directed by Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, so we have that to look forward to as well.