“No, you take the ugly one,” says the little black girl and fellow classmate of the elementary aged Colandrea “Coco” Conners in the opening of Dear White People’s fourth episode. “The ugly one” the little black girl is referring to is a black doll, and the interaction sets the tone for the entire episode.
Justin Simien’s 2014 film Dear White People was originally supposed to be a Netflix series, which explains the film’s flaws: The lack of character development in its 108-minute running time was a point of contention for some moviegoers. But the series, which debuted on Netflix late last month, aims to go back and add details to everything the film didn’t have time to address—most notably, its characters. I’m personally pleased with the background given to Coco Conners, played by the charming Antoinette Robertson. Resident dark-skinned diva and villain-at-first-glance, in the film Coco is presented as bad and boujee without context. But the series’ fourth episode—directed by Tina Mabry, who has credits like Mississippi Damned and OWN’s Queen Sugar under her belt—frames Coco in an empathetic light. We get to see her being dynamic, vulnerable and earnest to a fault. We even get to see her being friends with Sam (Logan Browning), our biracial, pro-black, militant-to-a-fault protagonist.
Once upon a time, Sam and Coco were good friends. Freshman year, Sam sported her hair straight and shared a dorm with Coco—and then began her journey to being “woke.” When Sam sees the dark-skinned Coco on campus as the students are getting their room assignments, she runs up to Coco smiling brightly and sings, “Black person!” The two trade black girl battle stories about how guys treat them, in which Sam offers the age-old backhanded compliment that every dark-skinned black girl has heard at least once in her life: “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” We watch the characters support each other, although their lived experiences and main objectives couldn’t be further apart. Coco is a product of the hood and is focused on getting out and as far away as possible from the stereotypes her complexion comes with; she’s also looking for romantic love and her pursuit is painful to watch. Sam, on the other hand, has to literally push her suitors away, as she seems intent on becoming the next Angela Davis. At first, the pair isn’t willing to let their opposing goals affect their friendship. Eventually, though, politics get in the way.
Sam’s loose curls, light skin and green eyes afford her the social capital to behave as militant as she does: her “light-skinned privilege,” as Coco calls it. But Sam seems oblivious to this aspect, which is ironic considering how socially conscious the character aspires to become.
In a flashback to their friendship, Sam watches Coco go through through the black girl ritual of “getting her hair did” in preparation to pledge a historically black sorority. But those activities are frivolous to Sam, whose idea of blackness is a static militancy, and show just how detached she is from actual black people as opposed to her idea of them. It also becomes glaringly obvious that Sam has no empathy for Coco. Once Sam garners a spot in the Black Student Union, she shows no restraint in treating Coco and her wants as dispensable and unimportant.
Now that Sam has accomplished her goal of being “black enough” through sporting her natural hair and being part of the BSU, Coco and her black Barbie lifestyle no longer serve Sam, and are therefore no longer worthy of consideration. This lack of consideration is what eventually turns the love the girls once had for each other into hate. We see Coco jumping through hoops and being rejected by white people and black people alike. Black men throw themselves at Sam, while Coco is either ignored or treated like a booty call. Her only companions, after her friendship with Sam sours, are white girls who see her chocolate complexion as a must-have accessory. Is it any wonder that Coco Conners grows into a woman whose only concern is herself?
“Chapter IV” shows in great detail how the storied black female villain is made: An archetype that has never had her day in the sun—until now. If you aren’t familiar with the trope, see any Gabrielle Union film or Toni Child’s character on Girlfriends. See also the various real-life dark-skinned black women who have to overcompensate for their dark skin by embodying Euro-centric beauty standards, while also being accused of “vanity” or “shallowness.” But no one ever takes into account that, more often than not, these women have to do these things to get ahead in society. It’s so easy to be like Sam and write women like Coco off as “not woke.” But, as Coco says to Sam when she storms into her recording session, “Is… dragging other black women part of your revolution?”
Thankfully, Coco wins in “Chapter IV.” She has her first “powergasm” when she’s invited to a prestigious campus party because, finally, “she’s hot enough.” And once at said party, the sorority sisters who rejected her freshman year show up and try to use Coco to gain entrance. “Do you know them, Coco?” a wealthy frat boy asks as she stares out of the party and into the hopeful faces of her black colleagues. Happily, Coco squeals, “Yes!” and then slams the door in their faces. The episode ends with Coco confronting the insanely popular Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell) on their situationship. He obliges, in what seems to be an attempt to make their relationship public and give Coco what she’s been looking for since school started: validation from a powerful and important man. The final image is of Coco receiving cunnilingus from Troy as she smokes a joint, wrapped in gold Sam once gifted her as an apology for her “light-skinned privilege.”
It may not like seem like much, but it’s a big win for Coco, and an interesting facet to add to her character: Previously seen as solely black, bad and boujee, I appreciated Mabry and writer Njeri Brown’s attempt to bring dynamism to Coco, and now she can add “winner” to her list of traits. Hopefully, next season, they’ll bring even more depth to the characters and flesh out the token African student. (Because in what world is the Black student body on any campus not significantly first or second generation African descent?) By approaching colorism, Dear White People shows that, although the title of the series isn’t Dear Black People we’ll still be doing the deep internal work of analyzing—and hopefully healing—the wounds of our community. Lauryn Hill said it best: “How you goin’ win if you ain’t right within?”
Dear White People is now streaming on Netflix.
Nia Hampton is a writer that travels, an independent filmmaker and most importantly a black girl from West Baltimore. Find out more at niahampton.com and follow her on Instagram at @_NIAnderthal.