On the other side of town from the big franchises, and the future shocks, and the broad comedies, there are these intimate stories that have come of age in recent years. When you ask what happens in “Better Things,” or “Insecure,” or “Somebody Somewhere,” or, now, the winning British import “Dreaming Whilst Black,” the answer has to be somewhat vague — wonderfully vague, really. The world isn’t under siege, but on these shows the whole world is in every moment. Love is as complicated as ever, professional aspirations remain just out of reach, small pleasures must be celebrated before they inevitably end, grief needs to be dealt with before it deals with you, and rent must be paid.
In “Dreaming Whilst Black,” which originated in 2018 as a web series, race is an important part of the story, too, as we follow an aspiring filmmaker named Kwabena through six episodes of daily London life as he tries to make it in a predominantly white industry. When we meet him, Kwabena, played warmly by series co-creator Adjani Salmon, is working at a recruitment company, but it’s a dull placeholder until someone expresses interest in his script, which is a period love story called “Jamaica Road.” He lives with his cousin, Maurice (Demmy Ladipo), and Maurice’s pregnant wife, Funmi (Rachel Adedeji), he is close to his Jamaican-born family, and he begins dating Vanessa (Babirye Bukilwa). His dream is very much alive, but very much unrealized.
He runs into an old friend, Amy (Dani Moseley), who is working at a production company. Just as Kwabena is the only Black person at his company, she is the only Black person at hers. The show mines their experiences with micro- and not-so-micro-aggressions for some cringy satirical comedy, as their white colleagues look at them and see only color, even when they try not to. Kwabena’s white office pal is dating a Black woman, and he has awkward questions for Kwabena about which movie to watch with her, as well as about penis size. At one excruciating and plot-shifting point, Kwabena finds himself at a karaoke session with his all-white co-workers singing along in unison to the N-word. Amy is tired of people asking to touch her hair, and she is brought into important meetings solely when a racial or a diversity issue is under discussion. The producers we meet in Kwabena’s and Amy’s world are interested in stories of Black pain — but not in the struggles of real Black people. They’re all for inclusivity, but only if those who’ve been included conform to stereotypes.
But Amy gets Kwabena a pitch meeting at her production company, which triggers some changes in his life. One of the central themes of the series, which premieres Friday on Paramount+ With Showtime and Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime, is the “dreaming” part of the title, as Kwabena’s desire is, as human nature often has it, wedded to his fears. Underneath the enthusiasm and the hard work, there is some ambivalence, which comes into play particularly when he is asked to compromise his artistic vision. The show has a surreal streak, so that at times we see a scene play out before we realize it’s taking place in Kwabena’s imagination — things he wishes he’d said or done, things a more assertive person might have said or done.
“Dreaming Whilst Black” focuses on Kwabena and his creative life, but it also builds a sense of community among his friends and family. It touches on Maurice’s desires and fears, as he gets closer to fatherhood. Like Kwabena, he aspires to big things, but he is haunted by feeling he won’t be good enough. The show points out the lousy position Amy is in, particularly when a less competent white woman gets the assistant producer job she wanted. She loses if she’s too passive, but, as a woman and as a Black woman, she loses if she’s too honest and assertive. When asked about racial issues in the workplace, she mentions a hair incident that leaves a white colleague in guilty tears and the rest of the office trying to console her. The show also keeps Kwabena’s family in the mix, leaning on him to make some money.
The six episodes fly by, and by the end I was fully invested in Kwabena and his path. His will to hold onto his dream is lovely and courageous, given the obstacles in his way, as a Black creative, as the son of immigrants who want him to be secure. “Dreaming Whilst Black” is a rich slice of life, and Salmon’s confident and inventive storytelling is impressive. It’s as funny as it is moving, and I’m hoping there will be more to come.
DREAMING WHILST BLACK
Starring: Adjani Salmon, Dani Moseley, Demmy Ladipo, Rachel Adedeji. On: Showtime. Streaming premiere Friday on Paramount+ With Showtime; Showtime premiere Sunday at 10 p.m.