This Time, 'Dear White People' Is Not So Much About Them : Code Switch Netflix's hit show, with its incessant and incisive look at race at a fictional Ivy League college, doesn't really focus much on white people at all.

This Time, 'Dear White People' Is Not So Much About Them

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Netflix debuts a new series tomorrow based on the award-winning indie film "Dear White People." In a few minutes, we'll talk to Justin Simien: he wrote both. But first, NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans says it's one of the rare film-to-TV translations where the TV show might be better than the film.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Dear White People" - don't be distracted by the title of Netflix's latest series because when talk turns to the show's insightful, irreverent look at race and society at an Ivy League college, it really isn't about you - this time.


LOGAN BROWNING: (As Samantha White) Dear white people, here's a little tip. When you ask someone who looks ethnically different - what are you? - the answer is usually a person about to slap the [expletive] out you.

DEGGANS: That's Samantha White, the curiously named head of the Black Student Union at the fictional, predominantly white Winchester University. She's riling up the campus with her socially conscious radio show, "Dear White People." But the title of Netflix's "Dear White People," like the 2014 film it's based on, is a bit of a head fake. This slyly assembled series is really about how a wide range of black and brown students at Winchester deal with race, sexual orientation and other identity stuff in the modern age. For example, Samantha struggles in conversation with her best friend, who's black, when news breaks on social media that Samantha is dating a white man.


ASHLEY BLAINE FEATHERSON: (As Joelle Brooks) I have to unpack my best friend having a secret bae.

BROWNING: (As Samantha White) Secret or white?

FEATHERSON: (As Joelle Brooks) Both.

BROWNING: (As Samantha White) You know I'm biracial. So technically...

FEATHERSON: (As Joelle Brooks) Don't. You're not Rashida Jones biracial. You're Tracee Ellis Ross biracial. People think of you as black.

DEGGANS: The series is crafted by Justin Simien, the director of the film, and it's a triumph. One technique the show uses is to tell the story of a single, scandalous party from different points of view. The show's narrator, a wry Giancarlo Esposito, explains that event, an on-campus party where white students dressed in blackface.


GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As narrator) The racially insensitive party, a chance for the majority to celebrate marginalized communities by reinforcing the very stereotypes that oppress them.

DEGGANS: But "Dear White People" doesn't just satirize white cluelessness. Shy student journalist Lionel, who is gay, encounters a succession of black students who use homophobic slurs around him, unaware of his sexual orientation. Then his editor at the student newspaper, who's also gay, asks Lionel if he's attracted to men.


DERON HORTON: (As Lionel) I really don't subscribe to those kinds of labels.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Labels keep people in Florida from drinking Windex. Let me guess. You're in the crush on your straight roommate phase?

HORTON: (As Lionel) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How can you hope to arrive at a truth when you can't find your own? Trust me. Find your label.

DEGGANS: For students of color, college can be a perfect time to question those labels, to challenge all those things that friends, parents or society dictate about what it means to be black or gay or anything else. "Dear White People" is a pop-culture-savvy, sometimes explicit, always entertaining look at that process, the perfect series for young people negotiating a world where struggles over identity grow more complex every day. I'm Eric Deggans.

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