Dear White People, Justin Simien’s witty, often profound satire of life on a fictional Ivy League campus, is coming back to television. Netflix said today that the ensemble cast will return for a second season, which is set to begin production later this year. As a fan of the series, I’m thrilled: Dear White People is as smart about race and campus life as anything I’ve ever seen, and its wonderfully complicated characters are entering season two with a host of unfinished business.
The show picks up after the events depicted in Simien’s 2014 feature film, also called Dear White People. (Movie spoilers follow.) Sam White, a mixed-race student at the predominantly white Winchester University, hosts a radio show called “Dear White People” that becomes a sensation on campus after a series of sharp commentaries about race relations. When the campus receives a racist invitation to a blackface-themed party, black students show up and confront the mostly white students who show up dressed as Barack Obama, Rosa Parks, and others. The twist is that Sam herself sent the invitation, as a way to draw attention to the racism on campus.
The movie regularly shifts perspectives between characters, Pulp Fiction style, often revealing hidden motives along the way. It has the richness of a good novel, and the television show uses its expanded running time to push further in that direction. Each of the 10 half-hour episodes are devoted to the perspective of a single character as they navigate the aftermath of the party. (Between Dear White People, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and GLOW, half-hour comedies are surely the best thing Netflix has going right now.)
I devoured the first season this spring over a single cross-country plane flight. What stood out the most was the depth of the show’s characters. Sam is a powerful voice for students of color on campus, and she’s hopelessly in love with Gabe, a white graduate student. Gabe adores Sam, but struggles to make inroads with his friends, who are wary of his motives. Sam’s involvement in sending the racist party message is being investigated by Lionel, a nerdy gay student journalist with a hopeless crush on his straight jock roommate, Troy. Troy is the son of the dean, who is pushing him to be a lawyer against his will. Meanwhile, Troy is having an affair with a married professor.
It’s a big, soapy froth, and Simien and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser punctuate it all with deft one-liners and satisfying plot twists. And while the show has a good-natured optimism, Dear White People also makes room for some of our era’s most vexing issues. A justly celebrated episode directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins finds the police on campus with their guns recklessly drawn on an unarmed black student, Reggie, after a verbal confrontation with a white student. The moment is excruciating, and its consequences reverberate throughout the season. In the finale, the police return to campus for a confrontation with another student, setting up the events for season two.
This may sound heavy-handed in print, but Dear White People has an absurdist streak that balances out the drama. And in any case, the events depicted in both the movie and the show are worth reflecting on, for viewers of any race. One of the most beautiful aspects of Simien’s work lies in the way it takes a timeworn fictional subject — life on campus — and lets us see it through the eyes of mostly black students who are so rarely at the center of the narrative. There’s a richness to Dear White People that only deepened in its transition from film to television. Here’s hoping that continues into season two.
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