Dear White People is not about white people. The show, Netflix’s adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 critically acclaimed film of the same name, is in some ways both a continuation of the source material and a radical departure. The original film’s satirical portrayal of race relations and black identity at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University followed a group of black students, led by Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), and a budding campaign against the predominantly white humor magazine Pastiche that culminates in a blackface party and small-time race riot.
The 2017 incarnation of Dear White People picks up where the original left off. With some holdovers from the original cast, the first four episodes of the show reconstruct the party and backlash that ended the film, and begin a story on a campus—and within a racial climate—that’s much different than the one viewers last saw at Winchester. But does the show, also written and co-directed by Simien, exceed the expectations set by the original? The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk, Adrienne Green, Gillian White, and Ta-Nehisi Coates discuss the whole first season, so spoilers abound.
Vann Newkirk: I enjoyed the show, and that’s an accomplishment because I didn’t like the film at all. I think this incarnation did a lot to flesh out characters in ways I found satisfying, and its use of multiple angles on the same basic events worked pretty well. But one of the things that sat in the back of my mind for all 10 episodes was that I have no idea whether Dear White People is primarily a commentary on race or a college sitcom. The use of different directors for different episodes makes it hard to tell, sometimes, and it’s unclear whether the moralizing elements are sincere or played for laughs (see: the show’s incessant use of the word “woke”).