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 college-radio 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 go 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 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.
'Dear White People'
When: Anytime, starting Friday