College dramas are a tricky vehicle to navigate. They have the tendency to let the more juvenile aspects of university life take over, leaving pressing social concerns that often plague young people by the wayside. This isn’t the case, however, for Netflix’s Dear White People, where a college dorm that houses people of color in a predominantly white Ivy League school becomes the battleground for crises of identity and racism.
Inspired by an independent film of the same name, the series weaves a fractured anthology told through the perspective of several students from Winchester University. Each episode becomes a vessel for the character in focus. And don’t worry, it’s not all serious business. There’s still a lot of college fun involved. In fact, the series is hinged on two pivotal events during the course of the narrative, both of which are booze-filled ragers that act as catalysts for the conflicts in and around the campus.
When a blackface-themed party ignites the ire of the African American community, cultural biases and political maneuvering send several students on a crazy collision course. The show is anchored by intelligent provocateur Samantha White (Logan Browning), host of the radio show “Dear White People,” a program that exposes the setting’s cultural biases and institutionalized racism. She’s like a mini Malcolm X, albeit packaged into the body of a no-nonsense firecracker. Watching her call out social injustices while still trying to manage the life of a student is simultaneously fun and nerve-wracking. Browning is sexy and eloquent in the part, a newcomer who’s sure to make more waves in the future if given the right opportunities. Bolstered by a solid cast of fresh, talented individuals, the show catapults itself outside the stratosphere of superficial young adult humdrum. It’s the kind of series where kids express themselves in such an intellectual manner, doling out references and allusions that would escape even the most learned adults.
One of Dear White People’s strengths is the dreamy mood it sets despite being grounded on real social issues. The narration, cinematography, and transition from one character arc to the next lends the show an operatic aesthetic that serves as more of a function rather than a style. There are flashbacks and flashforwards. Events are seen from multiple points of view, revisited over and over again until the audience gets a clearer grasp of what went down. Fantasies often take physical shape and conversations that happen in the shadows are given a voice.
While aiming for a vibe of dreaminess, its depiction of class, color, and inequality reflects how events are consumed in reality, with no one truth rising above the other. In this manner, by allowing the viewer to fill the shoes and borrow the eyes of a different character in each episode, the show never becomes preachy. It leaves you enough breathing room to make your own valid assumptions of what’s taking place. It’s responsible adult entertainment for a much younger audience, which, regardless of your prejudices, is certainly enlightening.
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