“Dear White People,” the new Netflix TV series created by Justin Simien, premiered Monday at SXSW to thunderous applause. The screening featured episodes 1 and 2, and it became quickly clear that Simien is looking at the same events through different perspectives.
Episode 1 is told from the perspective of Samantha White, played by Logan Browning, who has a radio show titled “Dear White People.” She’s upset that the fictional, mostly-white Ivy League school that she attends is allowing a blackface party, and she goes on the air to explain that dressing up like her for Halloween isn’t cool.
And if you think this is a one-note kind of message, well it isn’t. Samantha is very complicated, navigating various identities. She acts one way with her best friends, quite another with the campus black caucus and even more differently with her boyfriend.
The same can be said for Episode 2, which is told from the perspective of Lionel, played by DeRon Horton. He’s an aspiring journalist, works for the school newspaper and is also roommates with the campus hunk Troy (Brandon P. Bell). But he’s trying to find himself, because he’s actually gay but in the closet.
After the screening, which brought lots of laughter, Simien and the cast discussed the series, which will have 10 episodes, and Simien stressed that he wanted to tell the story with multiprotagonists. He cited Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and the films of Robert Altman as being major influences.
So this will be an ensemble series. Simien says he also is aware that people might binge-watch the series since it will be on Netflix, so he says he took that into mind when he adapted his 2014 movie of the same name for a TV series.
The trailer for the series, however, has drawn online criticism, which has focused on what some white folks think is a condescending attitude reflected in the title. But that’s part of the point of the series. Samantha White is trying to make white people feel uncomfortable when they’re categorized in such ways. And the series makes it clear that black people feel that way for much of their lives.
Whether you agree with that premise or not, such discussions and realizations about race in America are long overdue, and “Dear White People” might help jumpstart the process. SXSW is to be commended for giving the series a spotlight in Austin.