"Dear White People" Has Truly Found Its Moment
Justin Simien’s humorous, unflinching, and ultimately searing portrait of life as a black student at a predominantly white college has cultural implications far beyond its campus confines.
It was the final day of shooting Netflix’s newest bingeworthy offering Dear White People, a 10-episode series created by Justin Simien, based on his film of the same name. Everyone felt understandably tired after the months-long shoot, but throughout the afternoon a sense of jubilation permeated the cast and crew’s final day together: mix of emotions echoing the last day of school; sadness and joy commingling as countless members of the crew bounced from one shot to the next. The set was almost vibrating with unspoken excitement. But instead of eagerly anticipating summer vacation, they were excited about the future, both for the show and for the country.
Because that final day of filming fell on Nov. 8 and most everyone was looking forward to Hillary Clinton’s victory — much of the crew was sporting I Voted! stickers. But as day gave way to night, Simien found himself counted among 65 million Americans who felt their hearts drop as reality washed over them: Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States.
“I was crestfallen. Everyone was — well, everyone who, in my opinion, had their eyes open to what was really happening,” Simien told BuzzFeed News. “It was a depressing day, a sad day for democracy.” But he had to stave off that looming grief, if only temporarily. “There was a moment I had to tell everybody, ‘Guys, I get it, the world is falling apart, but I just need an hour of your time so we can get out of here.’ It was hard and I was fucking angry and I was sad and I was all of those things, but, listen, the Band-Aid had to get ripped off. Black people already knew this shit about America, but I don't think white people knew. I don't think a lot of liberal, well-intended white people knew how bad things were in this country. … There's nothing I can do but sit back and hopefully watch everyone wake the fuck up.”
On April 28, the world will lay eyes on Simien’s contribution when all 10 episodes of Dear White People drop on Netflix. Like his film, the series is set inside the predominantly white Winchester University and, initially, centers on the same handful of students who bristle against the college’s antiquated status quo. There’s radio host Sam White (Logan Browning takes over for Tessa Thompson), her sort of secret boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amedori takes over for Justin Dobies), big man on campus Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell reprises his role), status obsessed Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Antoinette Robertson takes over for Teyonah Parris), shy journalist Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton takes over for Tyler James Williams), and campus crusader Reggie Green (Marque Richardson reprises his role).
But the series exponentially blows open the film’s worldview, bringing in a handful of additional characters, like Sam’s BFF Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson), sultry professor Neika Hobbs (Nia Long), and a whole host of other characters Simien looks forward to writing for in subsequent seasons.
Netflix’s Dear White People picks up directly after the events of the film — when a blackface party, thrown by white students and brought to an end by black students, has divided the campus. In the aftermath of that shocking night, the characters respond in a myriad of ways: Sam hits the airwaves, Reggie begins to mobilize the black student union, Lionel puts metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper, and Troy endeavors to reunify all the students. “In a lot of ways, my characters are going through a catharsis we are all kind of going through because they're all, in some ways, reacting to the resistance,” Simien said. “Caring so deeply and passionately about something and having it not work out and blowing up in your face despite your best intentions, I needed to see a show about that. So I made one.”
But Simien didn’t want to devote too much time in the first episode to playing catch-up. “I'm a superhero nerd and I'm so sick of every time something gets rebooted having to watch the origin story again,” he said, letting loose his deep, inviting laugh. “I got it. He got bit by a spider. We're good. As an audience member, I like dropping into a story world that feels like it existed before I got there and is much wider than I could get in a single viewing.”
“We can't do this show and not 'go there.'"
The first five episodes are each dedicated to a different student’s experience in the aftermath of the party. Then the series offers up an even more incendiary incident, and the subsequent episodes chronicle the fallout from that. While maintaining the secrecy of this moment is of paramount importance to Simien, he granted that it would betray the truth if the series did not address the more lethal realities of being black in 2017.
“We can't do this show and not ‘go there,’” he said, in reference to the sure-to-be "hot take’d” events of Episode 5. Simien paused for a moment to choose his words with intention and delivered them with the same vocal conviction: “We just can't. The thing is, we're in an era where people confuse bigotry and prejudice with racism. They're different things, and the reason it's important to call that out is because people who are oppressed by racism die. It's fatal to be black. And not to be black under certain situations or when you're of certain social classes; me, in this hoodie in the wrong part of this country, could get shot just for walking too quickly down the street or looking too long at the wrong person. That is the reality of our country. And to do a show that's supposed to be about the black experience and not go there felt so irresponsible. … It's just a part of life — unfortunately.”
The rise of white nationalism in Trump’s America is another fact of the world Dear White People will be released into — something Simien was keenly aware of before but learned anew in February when Netflix released a first look video. It was solely designed to announce the show’s premiere date but the backlash he experienced with the film’s title on a smaller scale in 2014 returned tenfold, thanks to Netflix’s cultural megaphone. A campaign to downvote the video on YouTube was enacted and many bragged they’d cancel their Netflix subscription to protest the show’s very existence.
But that familiar, faceless aggression didn’t sting today the same way it had in 2014. “A callus has formed,” he explained, echoing a lengthy Medium article he posted in the thick of the controversy. “What they're saying isn't about me. All of this talk of a white genocide and black supremacy, that's their shit. There's so much projection; all of the things they projected onto Obama...those are the things their politicians are doing! And it's really sad. But you know what? I get it. It's pain. I understand being confronted by something you can't believe is possibly true. I get it. It breaks you down to the core of who you are. It's part of the human condition. We all do it on different levels.”
It’s a realization that has, in part, stemmed from a concerted attempt to understand those who live outside his echo chamber; a limited worldview led so many in America, and under his employ, to be absolutely shattered by the results on election night. Throughout the interview, Simien repeatedly brings up cognitive dissonance — a theory that says people are pushed by internal forces to have all our beliefs sync up. It’s a mentality he absolutely comprehends. “I understand being confronted by something you can't believe is possibly true,” he said, citing a love of certain pop divas the world has long abandoned as a cheeky example.
“I have to write about these people and I have to respond to what they're doing in an artful way, so that means I have to open myself up to how they got there,” he explained. “Even if I don't want to, even if I don't think that's politically in my best interest, as an artist I gotta do it. I've gotta get it because it doesn't make any sense to me, it doesn't make any sense to me how threatened you could be to the core of your being that a black person is equal to you. But, for whatever reason, that's your experience and I have to understand it because black people didn't create racism. White people created racism and white people are the only people who can end racism. So if I'm going to be part of the change, I gotta get it. I gotta get the people who are against me — I have to understand them.”
In attempting to figure out those who seemingly stand against him, Simien has found an endless font of artistic inspiration. When trolls and bots set their sights on the show’s date announcement, Simien’s boyfriend explained to him how sophisticated they’d become since their last encounter, and his horror quickly turned to obsession. “The way modern-day racists, who call themselves the alt-right or white supremacists or whatever the term is, the way they operate … honestly took me aback. Then it was funny and now it's fascinating,” he said. “And when I get fascinated with something, it goes in my work, so we're gonna talk about that stuff.”
The irony, Simien believes, is that the very people complaining about a black man creating a show called Dear White People (he points to Stephen Colbert’s controversy-free Hey White People! series) are also the ones who would probably draw the most enjoyment from it. “[They] don’t feel scary to me because if you're so afraid that you go and create hundreds of thousands of fake accounts to give the impression that your opinion is louder than it is, that's sad,” he said plainly, his calm tone underlining how little credence he gives them. “No one thinks you're all real people, so when you say you're going to boycott Netflix, no one bats an eye because it's not reflective in the numbers or the culture. None of these so-called-boycotts — be it Starbucks or Target or whatever — have worked out because ... it's a very vocal, I hate to use this word, but minority of people. It's sad. It's fucking sad. Because the thing is, I know what it's like to actually be oppressed, I know what it's like to actually be marginalized, and if that's how you feel, watching this show is going to be the most comforting thing you can actually do.”
Like the film, the series looks at the intersection and interaction of race and class, but more important than those surface labels are the questions about our humanity that lie at the core of the series. “How do you figure out who you are when what you are is of paramount importance to the people in the society in which you come into?” Simien posed. “You're a black woman. Forget who you are, that's what you are. And that's sort of the universal experience of being part of any marginalized community, frankly.” It’s one of many concepts that have been carried over from the film. The series, however, offers Simien the opportunity to explore new territory that may have once been touched upon in his original 200-plus-page screenplay, but was excised as the film made its way to the screen.
"I'm more emboldened than before."
Given how many personal experiences he wanted the show to encompass in the first season, it was essential to Simien that the creative forces behind the show be as diverse as the stories he hoped to share with the world. So he and executive producer and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser tapped some of the most exciting voices working today. In addition to Simien, who wrote and directed three episodes, directors on the series include Moonlight’s Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, Tina Mabry (Queen Sugar), and Nisha Ganatra (who has directed everything from Transparent to Better Things) while scripts come from Njeri Brown (Black-ish), Jack Moore (Difficult People), and Nastaran Dibai (Living Single, 3rd Rock From the Sun).
“I felt like, what the fuck am I doing telling a story about black women without black women behind the camera — or just women, period,” he proclaimed, almost as if to put that good sense into the universe so others could heed it as well. He also went on to single out Bowser’s innumerable contributions. “Coco and Sam and Kelsey and Joelle, they're big parts of this show, so for me to tell their stories without any female influence just makes no sense. It just felt wrong.”
That collaboration reinforced inspirations Simien had for the subsequent seasons he hopes Netflix orders: “Feminism is something I'm really interested to get into in future seasons,” he said. “There is a divide — specifically with the black experience, because being a black woman is being different than being a woman. It just is. I'm sorry, but it is. And anyone who tries to white-splain to a black woman that their issues are the same, you're not doing it right.”
And that’s just the beginning of Simien’s plan for the massive world of Dear White People. “I didn’t get to half of the stuff I wanted to in the first season,” he said with a laugh. “In Season 1, we introduce the characters and have a fun, rousing start, but the other thing I think it's time to get into is there's a lot of secrets in this country that we keep from each other. We try to solve these really big tasks and get nowhere because a lot of it has to do with the fact that we're not really admitting what the real, real issues are. I think as these characters are a little bit older, some of them have been exposed in ways over the course of the season that make them uncomfortable. I think it's time to get into some of that deeper stuff — both in terms of what we're dealing with as a country but also what we deal with in our personal lives.
"I just have more stories," he continued with a palpable passion. "And I feel like it's enough to fill a bunch of seasons. I hope we get more because I'm more emboldened than before.”