Did ‘Dear White People’ Get the The Black Queer Experience Right?

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When Netflix started promoting the debut of “Dear White People,” the series. I was really like, meh.

Don’t get me wrong; I thought the film with the same name (and many of the same actors by the way) was a fun romp into the liberal post-Spike Lee black intellectual hipster millennial mind of director and creator Justin Simien.

The film version was visually stunning, well acted, and entertaining. The campaign leading up the movie was even funnier than the film at times, always asking questions about race, but not just challenging white folks, challenging us as well. But ultimately the film was much like eating a $7 bag of potato chips from Whole Foods when Lay’s served it purpose just fine.

Dear White People was School Daze, and A Different World without the timeliness and urgency and frankly the originality of its predecessors.

That was then. This is now.

Dear White People – A Netflix Original Series did something interesting with this new iteration of the brand. It didn’t just rip off the past – it paid homage to it. It embraces the past but is very clear that this is a new day.

We get a glimpse of this pretty quickly when the Sam (Logan Browning ) and Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) characters toss some barbs at Bill Cosby and the Cosby Show.

In the credits of the series you may see a familiar name. Ms. Yvette Lee Bowser who you may remember from A Different World and Living Single. Having watched the series I feel Ms. Bowser’s institutional knowledge was put to good use with the characters and story development.

Just a recap, DWP the series takes place on the fictional Winchester University campus, just days after the movie version left off, after an awful blackface party held by white students is discovered by the black students. Mayhem ensues and the entire campus is beaten and frustrated with the boiling racial tensions.

The main protagonist Samantha White, played with guts and heft by Browning, is a junior, a media studies major, and one of those people who would annoy you with their virtue and altruistic intentions if she weren’t so hot. In reality if not for Browning’s gift for creating sympathy for a mostly unlikeable character, I would have suggested Sam be left back on celluloid.

She is the center of a story in which you will no doubt form your own opins about, and it involves most of the other characters and someone else will definitely tackle all that.

Let’s talk about Lionel Higgins.

Lionel is our geek desure. Our archetype, our stereotype and our savior of the series. Because Lionel, played by DeRon Horton, is really the one who has the most growing to do.

If you recall Lionel was the not quite out kid trying desperately to negotiate his queer identity and his black experience at a nearly all white institution of higher learning. Thankfully the writers over at DWP understand how important character is to a story, so we got a chance to see everyone have their own POV, all narrated by the amazing Giancarlo Esposito, (ironically of School Daze, and Do the Right Thing fame).

So Lionel, who was treated as somewhat of an outcast in the movie version, gets a chance to figure his place in the world in the television series. Thank God for us, because his time on screen is some of the most spectacularly funny moments of the series.

Take a scene where Lionel and his man crush (well everyone’s crush Troy Fairbanks played by the delicious Brandon P. Bell) are standing toe to toe in a bathroom stall. The signals and atmosphere spell out a romantic moment for Lionel, but the reality is so unromantic and hilarious.

At first glance, Lionel is poised once again in the series to be on the fringes of everything, even understanding. As the series unfolds, the characters begin to ingratiate Lionel into their fold, and this allows us to see Lionel, even if he doesn’t see himself. His sexuality and coming out story are brilliantly satirized by the writers of the show.

In one scene the editor of school paper that Lionel writes for asks him, “Are you in the crushing on the roommate phase yet?” to which Lionel of course answers “No.” It is an amazing moment in its universality. Everyone has fallen for someone who didn’t like them, and if you are LGBTQ we all know the “they ain’t gay” crush, oh so well.

Sam’s love triangle and political journey kind of seems like the main story, but like Taylor Schilling’s Piper is the Trojan horse of Orange Is the New Black, allowing for the black and brown stories to unfold, Lionel is the real hero who has to rise from obscurity and figure out what he wants for himself, his school and his life.

Check out the trailer for Dear White People series here.

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