Who knew racism could be so funny? If the question offends you, be prepared for even more outrage in the first season of Justin Simien’s equal-opportunity satire, “Dear White People,” available for streaming on Friday on Netflix.
Like Simien’s 2014 film of the same name, “White People” is set at fictional and largely white Winchester College, where the motto is “Know Thyself.”
Good luck with that. Samantha White (Logan Browning) is stirring debate about race through her campus radio show, called “Dear White People,” in which she advises white people about appropriate and inappropriate ways to co-exist with their black colleagues.
The white students counter by putting on blackface and throwing a party called “Dear Black People,” until they’re first interrupted by black party-crashers and then the campus police. The party may have been short-circuited, but repercussions echo through both the black and white student groups at Winchester.
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Samantha, who was a friendly, open-minded woman when she started college, has been radicalized, not only by how white students treat their black classmates, but how some black students have treated her. That’s why she’s hiding the fact that she’s sleeping with a white dude named Gabe (John Patrick Amedori).
Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the son of the dean and expected by his father to be a campus leader, but he just wants to do his own thing. His roommate, Lionel (DeRon Horton), is struggling with his sexuality, not to mention his hair, which he has given up trying to tame. Coco (Antoinette Robertson) is caught between wanting to be popular, perhaps even as a member of the black sorority, and wanting to rebel. Reggie (Marque Richardson) is having trouble accepting that Samantha is hooking up with Gabe, because he has a crush on her.
The characters and situations seem to be the usual college-kid stuff, but each situation is brilliantly and comically informed by issues of cultural identity and appropriation.
Arguing with Samantha about what level of biracial she is, her friend, Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson), tells her, “You’re not Rashida Jones biracial; you’re Tracee Ellis Ross biracial.” When Samantha wants to take Gabe to a black student group’s “Defamation Wednesday” event, she’s not happy he’s chosen to wear sweatpants. “Are you trying to ‘My Fair Lady’ me for your black friends?” he asks.
Yet, as the black students watch examples of racial insensitivity at the “Defamation” gathering, Reggie grouses, “Black lives are being degraded, and we’re in here watching TV.”
The cast is outstanding, and Simien’s script is masterful. On the one hand, he is dealing with complicated identity issues with intelligence and directness. On another level, he’s writing exceptionally funny comedy, crackling with credible wit that often packs a not-so-secret weapon: thought-provoking points of view about how we deal with issues of race and identity. Or, in some cases, how we don’t deal with them.
“Dear White People” is available for streaming April 28 on Netflix.