“Dear White People” works perfectly as a half-hour series, providing a sharp look at African-American students at a predominantly white Ivy League university while creating an assortment of appealing, well-defined personalities. Making the jump from 2014 movie to TV show, the Netflix show passes the test of juggling relevance and entertainment with flying colors.
Indeed, the timing seems especially good for the series, as people still grapple with the aftermath of the Obama administration, and the vision of a post-racial America. Here, race is very much a part of everyday life, as the black students are keenly aware of their minority status. And yes, that includes some discussion about whether the more politically minded among them might need to lighten up a bit.
Moving back and forth in time, and alternating its perspective to different characters from episode to episode, the program derives its name from a radio show hosted by Sam (Logan Browning, a breakout star in the making), a campus activist who chafes at the slights from even her well-meaning white classmates.
Narrated by Giancarlo Esposito, Sam is described as “one of the few black voices in this mostly white place” — said place being Winchester University, whose hallowed halls are populated by plenty of privileged legacies.
Irritation toward Sam’s on-air lectures leads the white leaders of a student publication to host a Dear Black People party, an event with multiple twists, whose repercussions unfold across several episodes.
“Dear White People” examines the black college experience from various angles, owing a debt to Spike Lee’s “School Daze” in exploring not just the friction with whites but schisms within the community itself. That includes the familiar light-skinned/dark-skinned debate, with a classmate telling Sam, “You’re not Rashida Jones biracial, you’re Tracee Ellis Ross biracial.”
Created by the movie’s director, Justin Simien, the show is also occasionally quite funny, including the students assembling to hate-watch a hilarious “Scandal” spoof, where the African-American aide to the president keeps falling into bed with him. Although the characters fall into types, they quickly carve out their own personalities and stories, from the closeted gay kid (DeRon Horton) to the ambitious student-body president (Brandon P. Bell) who shudders under the weight of expectations.
If there’s a major drawback to the series, it’s the too-broad depiction of some white characters, another throwback to Lee’s early films. While the show derives its strength from offering a multifaceted, fleshed-out approach to how blacks feel marginalized in this environment, turning the whites into straw men (with a few exceptions) undermines the depth that the writing exhibits on other fronts.
Still, like the best serialized dramas, the show becomes more absorbing as the episodes pile up, with perhaps the best installment, notably, directed by Barry Jenkins, coming off his Oscar win for “Moonlight.”
“Dear White People” is actually aptly named, because the entire first season feels like the opening to a smart conversation about race. Or, for those who want to skip the civics lesson, come for the politics, and stay for the comedy and characters.
“Dear White People” premieres April 28 on Netflix.