Tubi’s ‘Boarders’ Is a Hilarious and Moving View of Black Students Navigating White Spaces: TV Review

While the perils of higher education are becoming a wider part of the conversation, namely its lack of guarantee and exorbitant cost (particularly in America), solid academic preparation for the future is still often a ticket to a more expansive life. In Tubi’s “Boarders,” created by BAFTA-nominated screenwriter Daniel Lawrence Taylor, five Black teens from London’s inner city uproot their lives for the opportunity to attend St. Gilbert’s College, a prestigious boarding school in the U.K. Though the scholarship recipients are eager to begin paving a new path for themselves, the constant othering, feelings of isolation and fetishism begin coloring what should be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The Black students experience gutting racial and economic adversity, but the brilliance of “Boarders” is its ability to weave a rhythmic humor throughout the series.

Before I get into the specifics of “Boarders,” first a note about its curious origins. Despite Peak TV beginning its great contraction, Tubi, Fox Corporation’s popular, free ad-supported streaming service, is now getting into the scripted acquisitions game. And “Boarders,” which aired on BBC Three, is the streamer’s first scripted original television show.

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“Boarders” opens with an act of violence. A group of St. Gilbert’s students led by resident fuck-up Rupert (Niky Wardley) are caught on video terrorizing an unhoused person. As one character in the series says, “You know it’s bad when even the Daily Mail called it the great British shame.” With its illustrious reputation hanging in the balance, the boarding school begins a sweeping public relations campaign that includes cobbling together a two-person Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team more interested in inclusive visuals than actual change. However, St. Gilbert’s most extensive transformation campaign is the enrollment of the Black scholarship students championed by Gus (Lawrence Taylor), who runs an outreach program for the teens.

Quick-tempered Jaheim (Josh Tedeku) is reluctant to attend the new school, but he’s determined to make his younger brother and grandmother proud. Leah (Jodie Campbell) is a student activist who has set her sights on forcing St. Gilbert’s staff and students to contend with the school’s racist history. Omar (Myles Kamwendo), a talented comic illustrator, is used to being the brunt of the joke, especially concerning his sexuality. For him, St. Gilbert’s is just more of the same. Despite his carefree demeanor, Toby (Sekou Diaby) wants to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, Femi (Aruna Jalloh), drowning under the weight of his Nigerian parents’ expectations, intends to fit in at any cost.

From the moment the fivesome arrives on campus, they stand out in the sea of white faces. Leah finds herself stuck between a clingy but well-meaning ally, Maybel (Georgina Sadler), and her standoffish mixed-raced roommate, Abby (Assa Kanoute), who seems terrified of leaning into her heritage due to fear of rejection. At the same time, Jaheim is immediately sexualized by one of the school’s popular girls, who tells him, “I’ve never seen a Black penis before.” This interaction puts Jaheim on Rupert’s radar as a threat that must be contained.

Much of the series is tonally upbeat, but what’s intriguing here is the juxtaposition between “history” and change. As the Gilbertines, the school’s Headmaster Bernard (Derek Riddell), and nosy board member and parent Carol Watlington-Geese (Niky Wardley) work overtime to preserve St. Gilbert’s as they’ve always known it, at one point or another, each one of the newcomers betray themselves and their friends while trying to find a safe space in an institution that doesn’t want them in the first place.

British media often tries to push instances of racism and inequity under the rug, but “Boarders” confronts these themes dead on. Comedy is a baseline for many things the St. Gilbert’s newcomers must confront. Yet, “Boarders” never shies away from how violent and harmful constant acts of macro and microaggressions are. Still, the comedic moments are what keep the show so engaging. Omar finds himself in countless antics in an attempt to get accepted into one of the school’s secret societies. In Episode 2, Toby, a polyglot, nearly blows a gasket after getting coerced into a three-hour Japanese club session. Though Abby isn’t a part of the scholarship kids’ crew, her awakening, which comes in stages, addresses a series of things, including her choice in hairstyles and the snide comments her “friends” Florence (Rosie Graham) and Beatrix (Tallulah Greive) make about Black people. By the time the sixth episode concludes, she is one of the most intriguing characters in the series.

Tokenism has been portrayed on television before, but it is still rare to see depictions of the nuanced perspectives of various Black characters in predominantly white spaces. “Boarders” centers these students’ experiences with all of the heartache and emotional turmoil of navigating an institution deadset on keeping them out. Witty and sharp, “Boarders” gets to the heart of what it means to learn who you are when you’re being simultaneously ostracized and objectified.

“Boarders” premieres March 8 on Tubi.

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