In 2012, Justin Simien created an Indiegogo page for the crowdfunding of his first feature film called Dear White People. Donors could have characters named after them in the movie, or even a walk-on part. Result: he raised more than $25,000 in three days. After its premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2014, the film scored a 91% from the critics and a 61% from the audience on Rotten Tomatoes. Three years later, Simien adapted the story into a Netflix original series, and this time received a 97% from the critics and a 63% from the audience. For anyone who wonders about these percentages, it’s all in the title.
The movie told the story of four black students from Winchester, a fictional Ivy League college, and in doing so explored racial identity and white privilege in a witty, unconventional, and daring way. The series does the same with a single change: the climax of the old version (a blackface-themed party) becomes the premise of the new one. Samantha White (Logan Browning) lives the daily struggle of being a black student in a predominantly white school, and calls out the bias on her radio podcast called Dear White People.
Lately, other shows like Black-ish and Atlanta have elaborated on the same subject, but what makes this one interesting is a multi-focus structure (something also seen in 13 Reasons Why): each episode has a different protagonist and uncovers not only the tiny corners of cultural appropriation (in terms like woke, grits and hoteps), but also the nuances of systemic racism (such as colorism, a prejudice based on skin tone self-perception and carried out by black people among themselves). It has all been real for centuries, but it’s hardly shown on-screen with this much honesty.
Despite white audiences’ boycott and request for a Dear Black People version – which sounds as trivial and racist as All Lives Matter – and despite the series’ downward trajectory after the second season, Justin Simien’s idea stands as a provocative, fresh and much-needed look at discrimination – something that should concern those who endure it as much as those who perpetrate it.