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‘Dear White People’ Doesn’t Know How to Reckon With 2017

The Netflix adaptation is a perfectly entertaining show that often feels corny and outdated

(Netflix/Ringer illustration)
(Netflix/Ringer illustration)

“Look, bro, just because you got a black chick on your arm doesn’t mean you get to Miley Cyrus our pain” isn’t something I expected to hear in 2017.

The line, said by one of the main characters in the first episode of Justin Simien’s new Netflix series, Dear White People, is meant to serve as a mic drop. It’s Reggie’s (Marque Richardson) first triumph over the nebulous serieswide antagonist that is white liberal racism, a line meant to elicit slam-poetry snaps heard round the world. In this case the mild-to-moderately-racist vessel is Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), the #WokeBae of outspoken “Tracee Ellis Ross biracial” protagonist Sam (Logan Browning).

Reggie’s point itself is valid: Close proximity to a person of color, even a romantic partner, does not make white people victims of racism — nor does it absolve them of their own investment in white supremacy. But any larger truth in Reggie’s statement is obscured by his usage of “Miley Cyrus” as a verb. The rhetorical twist is finger-gun funny — which is to say, not funny at all — and it’s neither thematically relevant nor timely. Cyrus is off on a beach somewhere with Thor’s little brother now. She hasn’t been in the news for egregious cultural appropriation since 2015. It’s 2017, and Dear White People doesn’t know how to reckon with that.

With more space than the original 2014 film afforded, the Dear White People series does an excellent job of thrusting viewers into the hostile world of Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college. The school is both generic and recognizable enough to be modeled after nearly any elite, predominantly white American university. Each of the campuswide issues raised in the series — underfunded programs for students of color, rampant racism in campus publications, even a blackface party — reflects long-simmering tensions at schools just like it. But the overwhelming whiteness of Winchester — and its antagonistic effect on black students — is perhaps the only fully realized character in the show. Dear White People overwhelmingly sacrifices character development in service of its mission to “start a conversation,” and isn’t self-aware enough to recognize where it fits within that dialogue. The result is a perfectly entertaining show that frequently feels corny and outdated — and sometimes even tiptoes into caricature.

Overt parody on the show functions surprisingly well — riffs on Scandal and Iyanla: Fix My Life are particularly delightful — but too often Dear White People stumbles when trying to capture any sort of modern zeitgeist. The show is rife with cultural references that feel anywhere from two to 15 years too late. We are expected to believe black college students still use “woke” unironically enough to create an app called “Woke or Not?” and then actually use it and care about the rankings. Reggie tells Sam he’s going to oust her from the no. 1 spot, and it’s clear he doesn’t mean the entire shtick as an elaborate joke. (Relatedly, Sam is never properly taken to task for being simply insufferable.) It’s not unthinkable that modern college students would extend yet another facet of their self-identification to technology, but the awkward app idea is emblematic of the show’s overarching pitfall: Dear White People leans so heavily on its commitment to being Message Art(™) that it neglects the details of how younger black people actually communicate with one another. The larger issue the app’s creation points to — the desire to be seen as smart and socially conscious by our peers — is understandable, noble even. But “woke” hasn’t been strictly ours since … 2015? Wouldn’t young black people, creators and innovators and shapers of culture that they are, know that viscerally?

For all its highly integrated depictions of modern technology, Dear White People’s understanding of young black people could have been culled directly from the most-liked pages of sites like Twitter and Tumblr circa 2012. The incessant emphasis on hashtags — even and especially when said aloud — is jarring and unnecessary. The kids communicate in lots of ways these days, and hashtagging #makeupsex isn’t high on the list of preferred textual quirks. Those awkward, “How do you do, fellow kids?” moments are uncomfortable and abundant. Even the side arguments the black students have with one another feel like lazy re-creations of #diasporawars: In one scene, the show’s token African character (a ridiculously quirky, sage young man who has no identity beyond his Kenyan-ness) says Pinocchio is one of his favorite films, and a (presumably) black American student asks if Pinocchio is pronounced with tongue clicks in his language. It’s icky, uncreative material that doesn’t critique itself well enough to function as satire.

Cumbersome race discussions are indeed a hallmark of the show. Writing instructive, accessible dialogue about race that still feels human is an immense challenge — one most deftly achieved through the experiences and conversations of nuanced characters. Unfortunately, Dear White People’s characters speak like parodies of Sociology 101 students, and their backgrounds and motivations are not developed enough to overcome the microwaved dialogue. They are at their most eye-roll-inducing when an exchange is meant to be playful: In a scene after Reggie’s misfired Miley Cyrus mic drop, Sam asks Gabe if he owns any J’s (as in Jordans, you know, the sneakers) to wear to a black student event she’s invited him to. He responds with a line worthy of Matt McGorry: “So in this instance you want me to appropriate your culture?” (Get it? Black people like sneakers!) In a later episode, a flashback to pre-Gabe, freshman-year Sam shows her being asked who her type is. Before she can answer, she’s reminded “Malcolm X is dead, and DeRay Mckesson is strickly dickly.” Rather than make room for complex characters who grapple with both love and injustice, Dear White People often winks its way through shortcuts that hinge on lazy assumptions about both.

The show does, however, improve immensely toward the middle of its 10-episode run, with episodes 4 and 5 easily the strongest of the series. Episode 4 traces the backstory (and attendant motivations) of Coco (Antoinette Robertson), whose character development is by far the biggest improvement the series makes over the film. Episode 5, directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, both grants Reggie depth and captures the specific, harrowing reality of the primary and secondary trauma that result from encounters with police. The episodes feel like a breath of fresh air when compared with the zinger-heavy episodes that bookend them: They track both the respective characters’ backstories, their responses to catalyzing events, and how others around them process those changes in their demeanor. Episode 5 in particular adds a layer of gravity to a show that otherwise feels overly pithy. Still, the writing feels atemporal when presented in 2017. Black people have been having these conversations, so who is this for?

Dear White People the concept was always going to face tremendous resistance and attract racist vitriol. But pouring more energy into depicting the racism its characters face than writing the characters themselves makes it hard to root for Dear White People the show. Since the film was released in 2014, the project has done little to update itself beyond paying lip service to technology and social media. The film already felt dated; three years later, that chasm has widened dramatically. As a series that markets itself partly based on its conversation-starting qualities in the era of #BlackLivesMatter, the show falls short of creating black characters who feel like they exist today. Drake references may be eternal, but culture evolves quickly — and Dear White People hasn’t leveled up. Sometimes #relatability alone isn’t enuf.