It is a stark truism that a good portion of the world outside the U.S. remains puzzled by the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Specifically, we're puzzled by how and why the first African-American president could be succeeded by a man so unworldly and unwise about issues of race and identity.
It is also a fact that when the Congressional Black Caucus had its first meeting with Trump in March, the caucus felt obliged to present the President with a get-to-know-us document. A member of the caucus said this: "We brought him a 130-page document that started off with a brief synopsis of African-American history because we think this administration needs a little history on that. We started off with the fact that Frederick Douglass is dead; that HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] were not established for school choice because there wasn't any choice; that slaves didn't come over as immigrants searching for a better way of life."
Apparently, Trump accepted the document and suggested the caucus meet with him every month. They demurred and said, you know, maybe every second month was more doable. Maybe they were allowing the time it might take him to read that 130-page document.
Into this context comes Dear White People (starts streaming on Netflix Friday).
In any other context, Dear White People – derived from Justin Simien's 2014 cult-hit movie of the same title – might seem a bit outlandish. Even callous. It's a satire and it is a sometimes angry satire and sometimes, just angry. You watch and think, "Are some of the white characters a bit too dumb and blindly insensitive? Isn't this all a tad too blunt?" And then you remember that a White House administration needs "a brief synopsis of African-American history."
Like the movie, the series is set on the fictional campus of Winchester University, a mostly white Ivy League school. There are students of other races and backgrounds but, as the first episode mocks, the only time the students actually commingle is when they are herded together for a promotional photo for the university. A media student, one Samantha "Sam" White (Logan Browning) uses her campus radio slot for a series of rants she calls "Dear White People." Her rants are mostly corrections offered to white students who have all manner of blithe assumptions about black people and culture.
This doesn't go over well. A bunch of white kids transcend their muttered discomfort and disdain by throwing a "black-face" party, dressing up as black stereotypes – black movie stars, music stars and such.
Sam, in turn, uses the occasion of the party to up the ante. Usually, she says things such as, "The McRib was invented by Republicans in the eighties to destroy black communities … along with crack and Jerry Springer."
Now, she has a cause on her doorstep and she gets very, very angry on her show.
This is not to say that Dear White People is one long series of sarcastic rants about racism. The characters have lives on campus and they all talk in a rush of pop-culture awareness, some of which is very, very funny. Television comes up a lot. When Sam has a fling with a white teaching assistant, a laid-back dude and he starts talking about romance rather than fling, she laughs and jokes: "What CW show are we in?"
Thing is, too, that her fling with the white dude leads to all kinds of hassle. She is tersely accused of "sleeping with the oppressor." Other black students, in turn, then react badly to what is called, "self-serving blacker-than-thou propaganda."
The series walks a very fine line between its own anger and its sense of humour and, mostly, it works. The mockery of all student life, the pretensions of the earnest young, no matter what colour, is pretty much ceaseless.
However, the subtlety of the humour and the broad canvas of the story only become clear in the second of the half-hour episodes. It's about Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton, who is wonderful), a black reporter for the school paper. He's shy, an observer and very unsure of his place in the black student community. For a start, he's trying to acknowledge that he's gay.
A lengthy scene in which he attends a party for theatre students and is inveigled into an attempted threesome is outright hilarious. At the same time, it is poignant that Lionel's feelings are kept inside as he's wary about how both black students, male and female, will label him. The only one who understands him, really, is the student paper's editor, who doesn't give a rodent's posterior about anything, apart from a good story.
Like some Netflix series, Dear White People shifts away from the templates used on network or cable TV. Tonally, it shifts this way and that, and not always deftly. But it maintains its focus on blistering satire of racial insensitivity and general student stupidity. Nobody emerges as an angel.
It isn't preachy or even that provocative about race. It finds humour in the everyday assumptions that everybody makes. It mocks us all.
And it is also a stark truism that Dear White People the movie made some people very angry. When it was announced a few months back that this series was coming to Netflix, there was a vicious online backlash against it.
The sort of online outrage that actually makes the series more important than ever and even more hilarious.