For those still interested in scheduling a few hours to binge-watch Dear White People on Netflix, be prepared for a crushing disappointment. This is not the pot-stirring, in-your-face invective you were hoping for, but instead a comedy – nodding to contemporary tragedies in some places, full of wit and soul in others – but essentially a conventional screwball comedy, with the added attraction of pitchfork-wielding-peasants at the end.
As we all know by now, the title alone – and perhaps a YouTube trailer or two – have spawned a “backlash” among some whites who wonder why there can’t be a Dear Black People for the sake of balance. (This, incidentally, is exactly the take of some white people in the film.) Running across headline references to this “backlash” here and there on the Internet, I assumed the controversy must be about a backlash against the backlash – because it goes without saying there are going to be people taking umbrage at the mere title of such a cheeky, well-written, black-directed film.
But, no, the big news is, apparently, just the backlash. I would suggest to these unhappy people, who probably haven’t actually watched the ten-part series, they might want to do that. The director, Justin Simien, is prodigiously talented, and the series definitely has its charms. The first show, especially, is full of clever dialogue, which kept me warmly chuckling throughout, sometimes even laughing out loud.
It’s a feel-good episode, full of attractive, rebellious young students at an ivy-league college, up in arms over a fraternity blackface party, a little less so over the uncovered secret of a biracial romance in their midst. This romance figures heavily in the plot, and is vaguely reminiscent of classic screwball comedies featuring pithy male-female repartee and social-class tensions. The two young lovers are film majors, and at one point have a heated discussion about the real-life romance between Tracy and Hepburn – just one instance among many of the director’s nods toward the history of cinema.
But though cinematic references abound, this movie can’t really decide what it wants to be, and the second episode is a cringeworthy example of 21st-century guy comedy that still mystifies me. The (heterosexual) sex is raw, all in the service of a plot about a gay character coming to terms with his gayness. (A newsworthy footnote is that Simien came out as gay when the film was released.) A running gag in the series is the recurring student-union viewing of a weekly TV series (incongruously, porn) titled Defamation, about an illicit affair between the white president of the United States and a black aide whose deceased father was the vice president, but who has secretly been replaced with a clone.
“The director is prodigiously talented . . . The first show is full of clever dialogue.”
Aside from the fact that this film-within-a-film supplies some of the more memorable WTF moments, it’s also a pretty good reflection of the fact that Dear White People defies description. Is it, in part, a classic white comedy? A contemporary guy comedy? A subversive gay comedy? A black polemic? A porn film? Probably all of these things, and in the end none of these things, because apparently it can’t seem to make up its mind.
Those of us who were looking forward to this series because of the power of a few of its trailers – in particular, the beautifully bitter Samantha White addressing white people through her radio mic, Reggie Green staring down the barrel of a campus cop’s gun – must swallow our disappointment while acknowledging the smaller rewards the film has to offer. The series sets itself up in several ways for a sequel, or a renewed season, and if that happens, I’ll be among those watching to see how the director grows into his controversial success.