Warning: This review contains spoilers for the film and TV series.
Dear White People, adapted from the 2014 film of the same name, written, directed, and co-produced by Justin Simien, focuses on the lives of black students at the Ivy League College Winchester University. The move from film to TV series was a smart decision as it has allowed for a more in-depth and complex discussion of the pertinent issues raised in the film and has created more room for character development. More specifically, this adaptation from film to TV show lets us take a closer look at the multifaceted nature of black characters’ identity and the ways in which they tackle racism.
However, the first episode shares much of the same content with the film. For instance, we see the incidents that take place at the infamous blackface party. The following episodes also follow the film’s content, focusing on different characters’ perspectives of the events that happened and their aftermath. These episodes are where some of the plot twists of the film are revealed, such Samantha White (Logan Browning), the host of the radio show Dear White People, sent out the invitations for the blackface party and how she is also dating a white guy (how dare she).
Nevertheless, we get original content towards the middle of the season and this is where the magic happens. In fact, the best two episodes of the series are Chapters IV and V, which focus on Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Antoinette Robinson) and Reggie Green (Marque Richardson).
In the film, Coco’s character represented the black woman who wished to assimilate into white culture and hence heavily took part in respectability politics, but her character gets lost in the periphery and hence is quite forgettable. However, the Coco Conners in the TV series is anything but forgettable. I could, in fact, write a whole essay on her character. Nonetheless, one aspect that really stood out to me about her is how she realistically portrays how a black woman’s image highly dictates what people think of her. This does happen to all women, however more so to black women. For instance, a black woman with natural hair tends to be viewed as more political and pro-black than a woman who wears wigs and weaves with straight textured hair. In fact, the latter group is viewed as wanting to be white and as rejecting their blackness.
And Coco is judged and portrayed in the same way. Interestingly, one of the first scenes we see of Coco, in both the film and TV adaption, is her in a blonde wig. Moreover, throughout the Netflix series, she wears a series of other wigs and weaves and is very interested in finding a man of status to settle down with. Hence, she is presented to the audience and judged, by the other characters, as someone who may be shallow and not that intelligent, as well as someone who rejects her blackness and is hence not pro-black.
However, she is nothing of the sort. She’s, in fact, smart, ambitious and does care about the black community. This brings me onto another element of her character that is interesting, which is that she gains agency and a sense of power through following respectability politics. Respectability politics are a series of actions or behaviours that help marginalised groups assimilate into the dominant groups’ culture. These very actions managed to get Coco into an Ivy League College, even though she came from a bad background, and hence have given her more opportunities and access to power.
Although respectability politics in no way directly help combat racism and dismantle the system, it could be argued that they may help fight racism in another way. For instance, black people that have reached positions of power will have most likely engaged in some type of respectability politics. However, this enables them to be able to more effectively help their community because of their status. We know that Coco wishes to be a lawyer and that she has been personally affected by police brutality, so she could possibly want to make a difference and represent her community in the legal system, and respectability politics could be a tool to help her get there. This raises the question of whether there’s only one kind of activism effective in tackling oppression.
Not only Coco’s blackness is put into question. In fact, the multifaceted aspect of other characters’ identity causes many of them and other characters to doubt their blackness. For instance, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P Bell), like Coco, is also deemed to be not “woke” because of his participation in respectability politics, too. However, there’s also Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), an aspiring journalist who was made fun of by other black people because he dressed up as Star Trek character Geordie La Forge (LeVar Burton) at a Halloween party. He also comes to terms with his sexuality. Then there’s Sam who feels the need to change her music from a ballad to hip-hop as she walks past a group of black people. Furthermore, she’s scared to admit that she’s dating a white guy as this may make her even less black than people may think she is given that she’s mixed race.
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins shows more of the complexity of black identity in Chapter V, which focuses on Reggie. His character seems tough, headstrong and looks like a revolutionary. If he wore glasses, he’d maybe even look a bit like Malcolm X. However, we see a vulnerable side to Reggie in his centric episode, after one of his white acquaintances says the n-word at a party, which makes things kick off. This leads to the college police arriving, which lands Reggie on the other side of a gun. In all earnest, this was the scene that hit me most in the whole season. I felt the fear that Reggie and the crowd standing around him felt, which made me think about what must go through the minds of all those black men (and just black people in general) who have been on the other end of a police officer’s gun.
Equally moving was Reggie’s reaction to the event. He becomes silent and tries to hold it together, but we then see him break down and cry alone when he goes back to his room as Sam pounds on the door asking if he’s okay. Scenes like these humanise black men and demonstrate that mental anguish they, and in fact, black people in general, can go through during situations like police brutality.
Not everything was perfect about this show, as the first couple of episodes were a bit slow, some of the lines were just a tad too cringeworthy and there were many moments where Logan Browning’s performance seemed to be lacking, especially given that she is supposedly the main character. However, I think the series is off to good start and I looking forward to seeing the complexities of racism and black identity further explored in the second season.