Created by Justin Simien
Entire season arrives on Netflix 4/28
The ways in which people, young people in particular, conceptualize their identities –from articulation to expression – and the rhetoric they use continue to shift dramatically, even in the short years since the release of Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2014. In three years, there have been more explosive catalysts for such conversations around how identity plays a fundamental role in how people are perceived, how they may act, and the systematic machinations that may keep those of certain identities ascending into more stable social/class/gender/racial/sexual statuses. And as Simien’s film suggested, the campuses of American universities is an interesting, electrically charged arena for the politics of identity to come to a head, a test to see where these ideas and concepts can move and how the rhetoric will shape the battle.
Dear White People has been adapted into a television show for Netflix by its director, refashioned and restructured to examine what would have happened after the campus’s deliberately provocative Onion-esque white/male dominated satirical paper’s blackface party was crashed by black students. Part of this restructuring regards the characters and the tone, inasmuch as apolitically is not an option for the show itself, but nonetheless occupies the minds of some of its characters. The show, though, is as upfront about how it wants to address the politics of identity as one of its leads, Samantha White (Logan Browning), the host of the college radio show “Dear White People”.
It means that, for the two episodes I watched, Simien ends up having an internal discussion between aesthetics and politics and how they intersect or distance themselves from one another, particularly through the lens of conceptualized identity. In this format, there’s more of a Godardian impression that a lot of his characters are mouthpieces for particular ideas, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but that they were sketched thin with little personality. Sam’s reckoning of her personal life and her political life is an attempt to illustrate her as a full bodied person, yet the way Simien writes that subplot and how it then informs Sam’s ambivalence regarding a certain facet of identity politics strips it of humanity and empathy, instead giving it a cold water feeling of didacticism. Yet the shot of a sex scene between Sam and her boyfriend, which winds around itself and the room, reminiscent of a shot in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, shows that there’s easily a lot of potential for the politics the inform the emotion and vice versa in this relationship.
Didacticism isn’t always a bad thing, and there’s a hint that the show argues in favor of it. Without some form of that, Dear White People in any format, wouldn’t have that confrontational power. In Simien there’s ambition in both the political and personal trajectory of his characters as well as the aesthetics of his work. But Simien has honed the political part and the aesthetic part, not the personal element. It’s hard, then, to map out, even as a panorama, the gladiator-esque tensions of identity politics rhetoric because so much of that dialectical form is personal. On the ground, it’s watching people who’ve realized how much they are affected by the world because of who they are, and it becomes a volcanic eruption of fury and passion and confusion, and that’s just as important as the structural aspect of the politics. And that’s what Simien has trouble narrativizing in these couple of episodes. It feels and looks too much too often like there’s a stamp on every conversation rather than allowing the messy flow of it to take over. It makes the cultural and topical references feel not specific, but pointed with a neon exclamation point. It makes the show a little harder to justify in its existence to me.
But what they’ve done with queerness so far is interesting; Simien, in spite of his rocky approach to characters as people, understands pretty well forbidden desire. Lionel (DeRon Horton), who’s the nerdy afro sporting reporter who broke the blackface party story is disinclined to label himself. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of indecision, perhaps out of anxiety. He’s like the lead in Beach Rats at times, repeatedly answering, “I don’t know what I like” to the oft asked question, “What/who do you like?” That’s a valid response of course. But what is clear is his infatuation and lust for his roommate, big man on campus/son of the Dean Troy (Brandon P. Bell). There is both libidinous yearning and aspirational identification here: Troy is conventionally attractive, with marbled musculature, swagger and confidence, style and taste and money, and a sex life. Lionel has none of these things.
He hears through the wall Troy having sex night after night and temptation leads Lionel to fantasize about his roommate: his body, his rhythm, his sweat, his technique. Lionel closes his eyes and loses himself in that euphoria. It’s striking how the want and the longing is so precisely articulated here, giving Horton room for his best work. It’s one of the few shows to give space to a queer black gaze, as intoxicating a fantasy and impressive a formal feat (the walls of Lionel’s room fall away with a Brechtian smirk) as anything in the queer canon, rivaling the dizzying daze of the tunnel scene in Carol, the phantasmagoric ecstasy of Fireworks, and the spiritual dreamscape of Tropical Malady.
If Simien can charge his sex with such power and complexity, rolling all of his ideas and sense of empathy and character into scenes of eroticism, the hope is that the rest of the series gives him room to spread that across different kinds of scenes and plot points. In its first two episodes, Dear White People’s urgency finds itself in intimacy, where the line between personal and political is erased altogether.