While viewing season one of Justin Simien’s Dear White People on Netflix, a James Baldwin quote comes to mind. “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”
While Baldwin said this in 1961, the sentiment rings true today. The constant rage Baldwin spoke about is what the black characters in Dear White People’s fictional Ivy League college, Winchester University, deal with in their own way.
There’s Sam White (played by Logan Browning,) the outspoken bi-racial social justice activist who hosts the controversial campus radio show titled Dear White People. She organizes with Reggie Green (played by Marque Richardson) an intellectual who crushes on Sam and is ultimately disappointed when it’s revealed she is dating a white guy, Gabe. Sam’s former best friend is Colandrea Collins (Antoinette Roberston,) who goes by “Coco” as one of her many efforts to downplay her blackness in order to achieve her ambitious goals and navigate the politics of a predominately white institution. Her ambitions lead her into a relationship with Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) the popular, respectable and non-threatening student body president who is also the son of the dean. Then there’s Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton,) the loner who ends up with a front seat to all the drama, giving him plenty of bylines for the campus newspaper, The Winchester Independent, while he comes to terms with his sexuality.
The Netflix series was born from the feature film released in 2014 of the same name and picks up where the movie leaves off- showing how the campus responds to a blackface party thrown by white student, Kurt Fletcher, the head of Pastiche, the campus satirical magazine, and son of the university’s president.
While the film seemed to be predictable and redundant at times (at least for black audiences,) the series paves way for greater development as the characters find ways to control their rage. For black people in the United States, the act of self-preservation in majority white spaces is a collective experience dealt with individually, and Winchester University serves as the microcosm exploring the range of institutional racism.
One particular episode that does this well is Chapter V, which was beautifully directed by Barry Jenkins who is most known for directing the Academy Award winning film, Moonlight. The episode’s rising action begins with a micro-aggression at a house party, one all too familiar with any black person who has ever attended a concert. A white friend of Reggie’s says the n-word while singing along to a hip-hop song. Reggie checks him and attempts to continue on with the party, but the white student, in the entitled way white men are notoriously enabled to behave, starts an argument defending his use of the word. “It’s not like I’m racist,” he said.
This scene stood out because America is seemingly made up many white people similar to Reggie’s friend. As police brutality and protests dominate the news cycle, somehow there are white people that make it seems as if it’s more offensive to be called a racist than actual racism. This is one of the main issues that Dear White People seeks to address- both the fictional radio show led by Sam and the series.
The argument at the house party escalates and soon the show takes us from the micro-aggression to the campus police being called and Reggie stared down by the barrel of a police officer’s gun. It is one of the most dramatic scenes in Dear White People, yet the fear is one of the most realistic moments of the show.
Even as a show dealing with heavy themes and tackling identity politics, the humor is sharp and witty, complete with Scandal and Iyalana Fix My Life parodies offering comedic relief. The rage still shows up as the main character in each episode, which can be draining for black viewers who deal with this rage in real life. With a second season on the horizon, one could hope it offers more catharsis for those looking to control their rage.