Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead
After unexpectedly finding the second season of Netflix’s Dear White People pop up in my queue a few weeks ago, I jumped at the opportunity for a binge-viewing. I’d been excited for the show’s first season almost a year before it premiered since watching the original movie with Tessa Thompson (now of Thor: Ragnarok and Westworld fame). The film was hilarious and thoroughly gripping thanks to its honest performances and colorful (pun intended) palette of characters. Plus it was shot at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, my alma mater, so extra points there.
Following in its predecessor’s footstep, Dear White People as a series is pretty wonderful. Not just because it thoughtfully provides a relatable framing of such an inflammatory topic as race relations through the eyes of young people on a college campus, but because of how masterfully it integrates the topic into the fabric of every character featured in the show, major and minor, no matter their race. Indeed, Dear White People succeeds at presenting its social commentaries entirely because its argument is one of validation and empathy told through the experiences of its characters.
As an ensemble piece with each episode anchored in the perspective of one character, you as an audience member are allowed to view and parse through the multi-faceted issue that is the United States’ historic and modern treatment of people of color in a context that always feels first and foremost distinctly human. Because beyond the show’s thesis topic being about race, specifically being black in the early 21st Century, Dear White People is more generally about what you would expect a drama centered around Ivy-League students to be about: young folk who are bright and driven, who have and want things that are important to them.
The obvious hitch that comes is that virtually every character has something they want, somebody they want, or a combination of both that are impeded or complicated simply because the episode’s protagonist or someone close in proximity to the episode’s protagonist is black.
The show has a heightened lens through which to push these conflicts with its setting at the fictitious Ivy-League school of Winchester University. Winchester serves as a sort of microcosm for how broad social forces influence society at large, with different viewpoints and subgroups easily being featured or represented in the form of student groups or even simply individual characters. The historical changes and evolution of certain groups is delved into with the University’s own history throughout Season 2, making the environment as much a character and piece of the discourse on race as any other set piece in the show, wisely juxtaposing traditionally “honored” pieces of heritage that are still exclusionary in nature like secret societies alongside the treatment of persecuted minority groups on campus, following their gaining access to the school and eventually a more firmly established voice. This history is most visually featured within the walls of Armstrong-Parker house, the dorm most of the students of color occupy which, ironically, is transformed once again at the beginning of Season 2 after being ordered by Winchester’s Board of Regents to change from being an all-black dorm to an integrated space.
Anyone who’s attended college or university will likely be able to relate with the setting and archetypes as they are presented. The show plays on the fact college is a time in most people’s lives where one’s identity is not only allowed to be, perhaps for the first time, explored meaningfully, but provides a rare social environment where reactions to ones choices are more immediately noticeable and accountable, at least by your peers. This is especially true for the students in the show, nearly all of whom are involved in some kind of activist, advocacy, or press oriented group.
The result is a set of characters whose mutual passion for justice while also being colored by their own interests and motivations, creates this beautiful mosaic of experience for us to explore. One episode we can watch the introverted, nerdy journalism inclined Lionel Higgins wrestle with his sexuality and navigate his burgeoning career as a campus reporter, the next we can watch social-climber Coco Conners ruthlessly map her way to the top of Winchester student government, followed by a former student-body president trying to piece together his comedic voice by way of a shrooms trip around campus.
All the individual story lines feel distinct while at the same time being intrinsically interrelated in only the way an environment where all your characters share a living quarters with the other principals can. What I appreciate the most about Season 2 is how willing it is to expound upon each character’s individual story in a way that throws unexpected and personally appropriate challenges to create unique, memorable arcs, whether that be an unexpected pregnancy, death of a family member, the ebbing or flow of a romantic interest, all of which are touched by the larger more existential crisis in how characters view their place in a system of disadvantage they have grown up in and must negotiate and evolve through as the players and opinions surrounding them also change and evolve (or sometimes devolve, as so featured in a rival campus alt-right radio show, Dear Right People).
Race is an important topic that should be on everybody’s lips as we continue to reckon with this nation’s slavery and Jim-Crow steeped past. Dear White People manages to toe the line between the politicized and human aspects of this complex issue in a presentation that is funny, relatable, and unapologetic in its commitment to challenging its audience. It’s an easy watch, only 10, 30 minute episodes per volume. I really enjoyed Season 2, particularly the last four episodes, and eagerly await for whatever lies in store for next season.
5/5, Watch and Get Woke