Diversity on Screen: Stories Draw a Crowd, Lectures Draw a Blank

On Sunday, I read a review of HBO’s most recent acquisition, a web-series from Chicago-based Sam Bailey and Fatimah Asghar. I eagerly went over to browngirlswebseries.com to get a glimpse of the next obsession the media giant would bring to screen. Having been in podcast mode all week, I scrolled down to the bottom of the page thinking I had found the first episode of the story.

This was a dramatic mistake. But I’m glad it happened.

Brown Girls follows two women of color living as roommates in Chicago. The project comes from OpenTV(Beta), an indie platform for the distribution of work by queer, trans, and cis-women of color. So it follows that the main character is bisexual but unlike most shows with gay characters, that’s not the first and only thing we learn about her. Also unlike most shows, Brown Girls doesn’t shy away from same-sex intimacy. Within minutes, the show invites the viewer to see both of the main characters in their most genuine and uncomfortable moments: dodging commitment and weathering personal and familial issues in unique and relatable ways.The series is an incredible step toward better representation in television and film, which in the past has produced TV shows that seem to function as an introductory class on wokeness.

Dear White People, which aired on Netflix in April, recounts character backgrounds in a straightforward manner that resembles a PowerPoint presentation. We linger on a pivotal scene or conversation between characters for only the time it takes to relay its significance, rather than come to understand it ourselves. The Atlantic‘s Adrienne Green rightly points out that the choice may be in response to criticism of the lack of character development in the original film version. The TV incarnation succeeds in learning from its predecessor’s mistakes, but perhaps living in the shadow of the Sundance film leads to its downfall. Dear White People the series suffers from the obligation to patch up the places where the movie went wrong.

Developing the backgrounds of five main characters is an ambitious task for the first season of a half-hour comedy. But it’s an endeavor that deserves a whole-hearted attempt. That the show fails to deliver, adds fuel to Green’s argument.

The series picks up where the film left off, with the same protagonist facing the same dilemma introduced in the last few minutes of the film. But instead of moving forward in full swing, the TV series spends a lot of time in the past, which makes it feel like a revision of the film. Other Netflix shows like OITNB have found exponential success by mining their characters’ histories. (But with a protagonist as detestable as Piper, there was only one smart move to make). The backgrounds of the prisoners unfold across multiple seasons; to this day, there are several main players that haven’t revealed what landed them in Litchfield. This model succeed in securing the emotional loyalty of the audience before going to the past.

DWP, on the other hand, tries to juggle both timelines at once. While the multi-perspective method is innovative and ambitious, it creates some confusion in the construction of character. Coco is a great example of this, as she is first introduced in the eyes of her campus nemesis. She then reappears as a tertiary object of desire in Troy’s episode. In episode 4 she gets to tell her own story, which reaches its peak in the finale. However, she doesn’t have another principal episode in the season; all of her development is recounted from the perspectives of other characters. As a result, it’s difficult to connect the Coco in episode 4 to the one we see in episode 10.

In contrast, the characters that Brown Girls creates in six minisodes is astounding. Within minutes, the two main characters feel familiar to the audience–even if you start with the first episode. The way we get to know the characters is far more natural than the transient method of DWP and thus, more compelling.

All in all, Dear White People is a good show for what it tries to accomplish. The title is not a gimmick–it’s a precise and apt description. The show functions best as a plea to white people, which The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates explains perfectly in a roundtable about the show:

There’s a long tradition of black folks pleading with white people. It’s a tradition that emerges from political necessity. There is some of that in the show, as it’s concerned primarily with racism, and only secondarily with black people. What I mean is that blackness in Netflix’s Dear White People is largely a mode of protest. Nearly everything revolves around racism and the pariah-like feelings it inspires. The show is much less concerned with the interior lives of black people. Is there a single scene of a black party in the series? There is a black sorority, but is there a single step show? Even the communal amusement—like the parody of Scandal—revolves around the relationship with white power.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, not necessarily. I’m glad that Dear White People exists, and I think people–white people in particular–should watch it for its fun-ducational quality. Tune in for the funny college dynamics and stick around for Woke-ulus 101. (Okay yeah, that’s enough English words to butcher for the day). But until underrepresented narratives can exist as stories and not lectures, there’s plenty more work to be done.

2 Replies to “Diversity on Screen: Stories Draw a Crowd, Lectures Draw a Blank”

  1. Great post. I haven’t watched the Netflix series DWP, but I was underwhelmed with the movie. I definitely agree that representation is so much more than existing within the industry, but acurate and diverse depiction. There is commonly a depiction of Blackness as a constant protest (not that it isn’t), but it also isn’t a monolith. Will have to look out for Brown Girls…once I get HBO haha.

    1. Thanks, and I totally agree! But btw the miniseries is available for free online 🙂 browngirlswebseries.com !

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