Showtime’s Dreaming Whilst Black is not the story of its own making, but it kind of feels like it could be. Described as being “loosely inspired by real-life events,” the comedy follows Kwabena (co-creator Adjani Salmon), whom we find toiling away at a dreary office job while dreaming (figuratively and literally; he’s napping on the clock) of being a filmmaker.
But the road to making it is a rocky one for any novice — and, as the title hints, even more so for Black artists trying to forge ahead in an industry still dominated by white people. That Dreaming Whilst Black exists at all feels like a victory after watching Kwabena struggle to realize his vision amid financial troubles, unhelpful advice and skeptical film execs. That it comes blessed with such an observant eye and such a confident comic voice is cause for celebration.
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Talent, Kwabena has in spades; everyone from his old film school buddies to the hotshot producers reluctantly convinced to read his work can agree on that much. He’s got a pitch in mind, too: Jamaica Road, a romance inspired by his own family history during Britain’s Windrush era. But the hard choices begin almost from the moment he decides to pursue his dream for real. In the premiere episode, he’s forced to choose between a meeting at a company that might be interested in his project and a meeting at the day job he definitely needs to pay his bills. By the end of the season, he’s managed to secure himself a spot in a program meant to nurture “underrepresented voices” — only to find himself deciding between his passion project and the “hood film” he’s worried will pigeonhole him, but that he knows will go over better with the oblivious white woman in charge.
Often, he reacts to such predicaments in dramatic movie-hero fashion, with an inspiring act of rebellion or a righteous speech — or, in the case of his budding romance with Vanessa (Babirye Bukilwa), just the right declaration of affection. Usually, they’re revealed soon after as daydreams of what Kwabena only wishes he could do, while in actuality he grits his teeth through miserable situations or mumbles polite nothings at people he’s pissed at. It’s not that he’s passive or self-effacing so much as it is that he’s unlucky enough to exist in the real world, where irking the wrong person can derail a career or a relationship. Salmon is charismatic enough to carry off the bolder imaginary version of Kwabena, but he’s also perfected the befuddled expressions that pass over Kwabena’s face as he comes back down from his flights of fancy and resigns himself to the frustrating realities in front of him.
And boy, can they be frustrating. Dreaming Whilst Black is wry and cutting about the racist microaggressions our leads are subjected to, often by institutions and individuals cooing about the importance of diversity in the same breath. Kwabena’s aspiring producer pal Amy (a lovable Dani Moseley) is stuck with a boss (Peter Serafinowicz) who presses her for her opinions as a woman of color, and then dismisses her as “too close” to the situation when she criticizes a project suggesting tikka masala and cricket as the “upsides” of British imperialism. The PSA he produces over her objections is both hilariously, outrageously offensive, and not that far off from (for example) Ron DeSantis’ insistence that Black people really benefited from slavery. Sometimes, however, the stakes are more urgent. When Black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women, as Kwabena’s cousin Maurice (Demmy Ladipo) notes, it’s hard to take much comfort in a nurse’s reassurances that the pain his wife Funmi (Rachel Adedeji) is experiencing is a perfectly normal part of labor.
Collectively, such big and small incidents paint a sharp picture of how plain exhausting it can be to exist in a world that wants to ignore or flatten or limit you. Yet Dreaming Whilst Black is never a drag, thanks to the warm and cheerful chemistry binding together its main cast. It’s a pleasure to hang with Vanessa and Amy as they commiserate about work woes over prosecco or sit back as Funmi and Maurice lovingly argue about her family’s Nigerian traditions over his family’s Jamaican ones, or swoon along with Vanessa when Funmi woos her with a Love & Basketball-themed date even though he’s more of a Tokyo Story guy. At just six half-hours, the season flies by almost too quickly. But it leaves behind a foundation sturdy enough to support seasons to come, should the TV gods will it.
What kind of movie Kwabena ends up making, we barely get to see. The series is less concerned with the work of actually directing than it is all the work leading up to getting to do the work: the pitching, the networking, the favor-calling, all the compromises and difficult decisions made along the way. Presumably, Dreaming Whilst Black faced some of the same challenges on its own way to the screen — and yet, none of that is apparent in the finished show, which feels as distinctive and undiluted a statement as any artist might hope for. Maybe it’s not quite Kwabena’s cherished Jamaica Road. But it feels very much like the sort of work a born storyteller might make in his dreams.
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