Sunday Soliloquys: Discussing Dear White People Pt. 1

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Good morning interwebs and a Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mothers and Mother Figures on earth.

Today I decided to forgo my general trend of writing my soliloquys at night and chose to instead write on this bright and sunny morning. I hope that’s ok with y’all!

Recently I binged the Netflix show, Dear White People, after enjoying several aspects of the source film and, to put it bluntly, both have some major issues. The film largely suffered from the spectacle of the film and inexperience of its creator (first major film). The show, while more detailed and developed, suffers from the need to draw grandiose spectacles and the inexperience of its writers (creator and others).

The glory of the show is that it provided opportunities for several Black writers and filmmakers to try their hand at an aspect of the “satire” (I’ll explain the quotation marks soon). The show is a character film cast over the course of a five hour show…much more in line with the works of Ingmar Bergman, who was often hailed as creator Justin Simien’s greatest influence. The directing for the show was absolutely terrific. The actors brought life and charm to their characters. Unfortunately, the writing often left them flat. The writing also suffered from the need to make these very real experiences a spectacle to get its satirical message across, a message that falls on its face often because the satire isn’t self-aware enough. To put it simply, Dear White People is a series that is saved by its novelty, its direction, and actors. The writing, from both a technical and critical perspective, fails to fully enliven and develop its characters, its situations, and fails to create enough of a suspension of disbelief.

Both technically and critically, Dear White People, is written in a clunky and hokey way. Many of the conflicts present in the show feel shoe-horned in, or are generated simply because that is what media based in young adult environments should have. Frankly, everyone’s personal motivation is to find someone or to deal with their love or lust for another character BEFORE the other conflicts. Lionel wants Troy (or someone that he can have). Sam wants Gabe (but also Reggie for a short period of time). Jo wants Reggie. Reggie wants Sam. Troy wants A$$. CoCo wants Troy (or suitable male equivalent). To be real, even Kurt Fletcher, problematic provocateur, WANTS Sam. He lusts for her “power”. All of the show’s relationships are tethered around sexual or romantic attraction, for their person, or for their power.

A more self-aware satirical series might underscore this main critical point related to character motivations: “Everyone wants something” in a more nuanced manner. Instead of the message reading as “no matter where you go, there will always be personal relationships for love, lust, power, prestige, and, realistically, survival…”, the theme here is more legible as “Young people’s political pursuits will always be problematized by love and lust”. Romantic relationships have bearing on activist and political projects, BUT they aren’t the only relationship that can derail or distort them. Romance and lust aren’t the only things that leave activists confused and uncertain about how to continue on. However, the vast majority of the show’s conflicts, the ones that get the most screen time, are based on lust or romance. Not fire.

In light of the show’s personal conflicts between characters, the larger political conflicts are also presented inauthentically. The show’s setting itself, at fictional Winchester University, a 9th Ivy League school, is never fully fleshed out in writing whether via dialogue or exposition. Clearly it’s a PWI (pre-dominantly White institution), but as someone who graduated from a larger Ivy (Penn), the school seems more Dartmouth (under 5,000 undergraduate students) than Harvard (6,000+). It’s also definitely not one of the city Ivy’s like Penn (Philly), Brown (Providence), Columbia (New York), or Harvard (Boston) for that matter. The political turmoil that is only partially race-based on Winchester’s campus happens conveniently in an environment where, besides the campus, there aren’t very many other political battles.

*****

Wow, so that got very intense very fast. I definitely have a lot to say about the show. I’ll stop my soliloquy here, but I definitely want to continue expressing my thoughts on the show. Look for a follow-up sometime in the next week!

Peace,

Rafi

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