Dear White People creator Justin Simien on how organized attacks on the show inspired season 2 and his hopes that his critically lauded Netflix satire can spark real-world conversations about race.
If you walk away from a television show with concrete answers about race I’m not sure you’ve gotten the whole truth…The best I can do is to get you to rethink some assumption that you might have had or to expand your mind to a side you never considered before.
In 2014, writer and director Justin Simien’s first feature film, Dear White People, was released to wide acclaim. A satirical look at race relations at a fictitious Ivy League college, Winchester University, the film won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and Simien received that year’s Best First Screenplay Award at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
In 2017, the series of Dear White People premiered on Netflix, picking up where the film concluded, following the same characters through the aftermath of the film’s events and their continuing college experiences. Season 2 premiered in 2018 and both seasons are now streaming on Netflix (season 1 is also on DVD) as Simien awaits word on whether there will be a third.
Both the film and series take their name from the popular, provocative on-campus radio show hosted by biracial media studies student, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson in the film, Logan Browning in the show). The series is structured into different chapters and POVs, exploring the lives of a cross-section of students, including (but not limited to) nerdy, gay newspaper reporter Lionel (DeRon Horton); BMOC and son of the Dean of Students, Troy (Brian P Bell); IT major and second-generation activist Reggie (Marque Richardson); Sam’s roommate and best friend, Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherston); Sam’s former roommate and social striver Coco (Antoinette Robertson); and Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), Sam’s white grad student boyfriend. (Note: Don’t let these quick CliffsNotes descriptions fool you, none of these characters are “types,” they are all living, breathing, complicated, individuals. We just want to get to the interview.)
Season 2 explores the rise of an alt-right movement on campus, fueled by an anonymous online troll, the search for whose identity drives much of the second season narrative.
Simien spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about transforming his feature film into an ongoing series, how real-world reactions to his work inspired his approach to the second season narrative, and how an inclusive approach has led to a unique writers’ room that is working to produce an array of diverse character voices.
What was the origin of the series? Was it something you wanted to pursue after the film, or were you approached about turning the film into a series? It’s a unique opportunity to expand on a story you’ve created and delve deeper into some of your characters.
I was approached about it as soon as we started screening it before Sundance. It kind of lends itself to it because it is multi-protagonist, which automatically makes it somewhat episodic. But also the version of it that arrived in theaters in 2014 was a condensed version of many, many different iterations. There were lots of other characters that were once a part of it that weren’t anymore, some characters that were in the film but weren’t really named, and we didn’t really explore their backstory. So I had too much material for the movie in 2014 and by the time Lionsgate and Roadside [Attractions] were buying us, I was doing a pretty extensive college tour. I already had the idea in my mind, from Sundance, and I just began to take what I had left over from the film and all the stuff I was learning going on the road with the movie that by the time I was able to actually meet seriously with Lionsgate about doing it as a TV show, I already had a pitch together, so were able to pretty quickly go out and shop it and sell it.
Did you ever consider writing it as a series initially, or was it always just a film in that original creative process?
It was the kind of thing people would say often in my writers’ groups, that it would make a good TV show. At the time, there really was no precedent for the TV show. At some point I wrote it as a TV pilot just as an exercise, just for fun. I had sort of fashioned a pilot version for like Fox or something. You just couldn’t imagine what network it would even be on. By 2014, I could see it as a show because we had Netflix then and HBO was kind of opening up to black programming or avant-garde modern-day black programming and not just dramas or historical pieces. It began to click in my head as an opportunity to try and reformat the TV comedy.
Typically, if you have an ensemble show, you kind of go A, B, and C story. You have a main character and then you cut to the sub-characters’ storyline and then at a certain point it’s just like several different movies or series going on that you cut between. I thought what would be fun is to maybe go the Robert Altman route, where you have these characters intersecting and interacting and living out their own personal narrative, but they all intersect at some point. With Netflix you can do that. I could see it as a 5-hour movie that was separated more formally into “Now we’re in Sam’s point of view” and “Now Lionel’s point of view.” That sort of formal separation to me would be an interesting way to separate out the episodes but essentially it is sort of written as one big piece that can be viewed at the same time if you so choose to.
So, you said that original version was much broader than the current show.
Yeah, because at the time I was thinking…I want to say Happy Endings was tonally the only show on TV that I thought would even be handled in that way. Because satire is a very specific thing to pull off in television. There are very few shows that even attempt it. The Garry Shandling show [It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.] being the first major satirical half-hour hit. Even now it’s pretty rare. You have us, you have Silicon Valley, you have Veep. It’s a hard format to pull off. So I didn’t really have a lot of hope at the time. Happy Endings was about it.
It was almost like a living cartoon. It was too broad for something that I would want to do now, but at the time, it certainly made for a fun writing journey. The biggest task from the movie was to stop thinking about it as character sketches which is all you really get to do in a movie that’s an hour and 45 minutes and let the character journeys drive the narrative, drive where the plot goes, because people tune in to watch the show for the characters before they watch the show for the ideas.
Satire sometimes suggests, at least to me, something that’s abstract or heightened or exaggerated. The experiences of these characters feel pretty firmly grounded and realistic.
I grew up in a tradition where satire had a more flexible meaning. I came up in a theater tradition. Satire could mean anything from a Brecht play to Molière. Dramas could be thought of as satires. That’s certainly how I see movies like Network or Do the Right Thing. But it is character first. It’s got to be a character study, a character comedy first, but certainly there are satirical moments in the series. I don’t care what anybody calls it, as long as they watch [laughs].
I do know that we want it to live in this place where you are following along with the characters. It is an empathy machine, and it works best when you care about the characters. But the show is certainly self-aware and has these moments that are so surreal I don’t think they can exist in anything but a satire. There are moments where characters will talk directly to the screen about something they’re feeling or it references other shows in the real world, but in this alternate Winchester world. It has a sly self-awareness that’s pretty irresistible for people like me and the other writers. Even the narration. Anything that feels like it could be a crutch on a different show, like a narrator, we always try to introduce some kind of irony into it. The narrator mentions in the first season he’s been hired by the writers to explain things that we’re too lazy to write ourselves.
The satire definitely takes a backseat to character stories because with black stuff, it’s already a barrier to entry, to be honest, to get people to even watch these stories, that a hard satire every week for a whole half hour, it just felt grating to me. I’d much rather just follow these people and like you said, ground it in something that feels like reality, then occasionally remind everyone that Winchester is a completely fictional place, that certainly represents America.
When you started working on the series, what was it like to bring on collaborators and to start a writers’ room? It seems like it could be a challenge to share this story and these characters that you’d lived with for so long with other people.
It was fun. I thought of it as a team of rivals. I knew that I couldn’t—or that I could, but I didn’t want to—write an ensemble with all these different voices and have it all come from me. That just felt weird, especially with so many female fans of the series, I knew that I had to have multiple black female perspectives in the room. And I needed different takes on sexuality from the guys. What I was looking for were people who you wouldn’t expect. I remember looking to my showrunner, Yvette Lee Bowser, and saying, “Gosh, do we have too many black gay men in this room?” And we seriously pondered that question for a second and then laughed because nobody else had ever asked that about a writers’ room up to that point. I was looking for diverse people who had other things to say about their experience as a marginalized person in this country than I had to say, but also people who could be very funny and wry, and people who could write. And the rest of it was really who was available and who we could afford.
Chuck Hayward was the first person I earmarked for it. He wrote a movie called Step Sisters, which was very successful on Netflix. I had worked with him to develop that script a bit, and I just knew that he has a much better sense for, say, jokes than I do. I can write a whole script that doesn’t have any jokes on the page, but has humorous situations. That was my forte. So Chuck was an obvious first grab for me. It was really like anybody who could do a thing I couldn’t do, that I was in awe of their ability, those were the first people I wanted.
Did you have the same writers’ room for both seasons?
Same seven folks, including myself and Yvette [Leann Bowen, Njeri Brown, Chuck Hayward, Jack Moore, Nastaran Dibai]. I bring my movie stuff because a lot of them have strictly television backgrounds. So I bring a lot of movies into the room. We bring a lot of podcasts, stories, and articles. I tend to begin the season with an overall big idea I want to hang everything on, then I invite people to collect stories and characters that haven’t really found their way to TV yet. I always want the show to be a surprise and an outlet for voices that are underheard.
I know you’ve addressed this before, but I was surprised to find so many negative reviews on the show’s IMDb page. When you read closely, it seems like people who haven’t watched the show. So it was a dedicated campaign or concerted effort, is that right?
Oh yeah, it’s on IMDb, it’s all of our Rotten Tomatoes audience. The critics have unanimously liked the show. But a lot of people formed campaigns and 4chan message boards and various other places that I wouldn’t be able to find my way into—some of which I did find, just doing research for season 2. It’s very important for them to, in the public eye, create the idea that it’s a divisive show or that anything that is head-on about race from a black person that that stuff looks as though it’s angry or has a chip on its shoulder or is in some other ways flawed or is reverse racist, or whatever. It’s been pretty consistently under attack since the movie, but certainly in the age of Trump, it’s taken on a whole weird organized vigor that I found both appalling but interesting enough to base a lot of plot lines from season 2 on.
But unfortunately, yeah, that’s a reality for me.
It did seem like the second season might be reacting to that. But it went back to the film?
Absolutely. It came to life for Black Panther. It was such a big movie that it was finally a thing people were willing to report on. This happens to a lot of content about black people. It happens in the documentary space quite a bit. It happens in the book space, though thankfully they spared my book that [Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-Racial Harmony in “Post-Racial” America]. The thing that sucks is that the average person who truly is curious about a title like Dear White People or maybe has questions or is confused or taken aback or whatever, they take a glance at these things and assume their worst thoughts about it are true and they keep moving, which is just another way to keep our voices under the radar. And it works, sometimes. But it’s one of those things. I had to learn this lesson early in my career that that’s something one must endure. It’s part of the cost of being in the room and saying something truthful.
I read your response to Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” video. In it, you talked about being inspired by it and Atlanta. You said something along the lines of if you have the opportunity and the platform, you need to use it. I wondered then if you think about an audience when you’re writing, if that filters into your process at all.
It filters in, it just doesn’t drive it. I know who watches the show. I’m certainly thinking about black women because the audience skews that way, but I’m thinking of anyone in this particular generation, because those are the voices I’m surrounded by. I do run it through my head how different segments will respond, but that doesn’t really drive what I want to say. What I want to say is the first thought. Something that’s made me frustrated or curious, that tends to be the first thought. There wasn’t really a proven marketplace for smart comedy for black people before the movie came out, but my instinct was that if I was into it, then there were more people who were into it and that proved true. So I can’t say that I write for just myself. I don’t know. I try to not be overwhelmed about that. It’s a mantra that I was told over and over in film school, that you think of your audience first. But I don’t make shoes, I don’t make bedsheets. I tell stories. I think that would really ruin my process if I put a type of audience first.
Have you found that you’ve reached anybody you didn’t expect to with the show?
I’ve heard from lots of people who avoided the movie and watched the show and loved it, or avoided the first season and finally watched. The story of people being bumped by the title and then eventually checking it out and understanding why it’s titled that way once they watch it, and therefore have a bigger experience of it, I’ve just heard that story anecdotally so many times that, at the end of the day, for whatever barriers of entry the title may have provided, to me it was kind of worth it. I’ve been referred to as a “black person” my entire life, it’s the first identity black people learn, and part of the upset over the title is that people who have never really had to think of themselves as their race, or confined by an idea of race, they’re frustrated by that. Yet that’s the existence everybody else in the country is having, so to me it’s been worth it, especially as a first project. But yeah, I’ve reached lots of people I didn’t expect to.
One of the first experiences I had was a librarian in Minneapolis, who was in her 40s, telling me she was a Coco, and she was so grateful to that realization. I can’t decide which is better, though, people who never had an issue with the title and got to see themselves finally in a show, to see whatever they were represented by a character, or people who never expected to see themselves, seeing themselves so much. They’re both pretty affirming experiences that for me have justified a lot of the choices that we’ve made over the years. Ultimately that’s what it’s about.
[SPOILER WARNING: A season 2 plot point is discussed in the following question & answer.]
At the end of season 2, the reveal of the character behind the alt-right Twitter feed is a surprise. It raises more questions than it answers. And it seems to get into these debates that people have over free speech. Was that what you were trying to explore?
For me, it wasn’t so much about free speech as it was about the ways in which anonymity allows for a racist institution to prosper under everyone’s nose. If it was a white character, there’s no way that wouldn’t have been a straw man. I felt that it being a character that you think of as part of a marginalized community, it tells a truth that a lot of us don’t really want to talk about in television shows, which is that the model minority paradigm is very real. Candace Owens as the most recent, splashy version, the whole Candace Owens/Kanye West story. It allows for insight into the issue that was deeper than if it was just a white kid you had met or hadn’t met. That just felt really obvious. And the truth is far more insidious and hard to decipher than that, generally speaking.
I said this before but now that you’re saying it, it reminds me, if you walk away from a television show with concrete answers about race I’m not sure you’ve gotten the whole truth. It’s a very tricky issue and it has many different layers. The best I can do is to get you to rethink some assumption that you might have had or to expand your mind to a side you never considered before. Because the real work of dismantling this thing has to happen in the real world. It has to be a cultural shift and that really begins with perspective and ideas. My show is not a prescription for racism. Maybe it can be helpful in diagnosing the problem, but a prescriptive show would be oversimplifying the issue.
Is the show a starting point for those real-world conversations? I feel like art can be helpful in exposing us to experiences outside of our own.
Yeah, empathy has to be the starting point for a TV show. You don’t care about anything you’re going to see unless you empathize with the characters. I hope it doesn’t sound glib, but I do think seeing someone who looks like Sam or Lionel or Troy does help to combat that unconscious bias we all have. Next time you see a bunch of kids meeting at Starbucks maybe you don’t think they’re up to no good, because you’ve seen kids just like that articulate some experience that you’ve been having. That’s pretty powerful. Even if you don’t pick up on arguments the show is making or the ideas it’s putting forth, if you’re just following the show at its most base level, a show about people, and their needs and desires and their striving to navigate this country, if that’s all it is for you, then it’s doing its job.
© 2018 Writers Guild of America West