Justin Simien talks 'Dear White People' season 2, slavery and safe spaces
When the first teaser for Dear White People, Netflix's comedy series adaptation of Justin Simien's 2014 film of the same name, hit the internet in February, the reaction from some corners was apoplectic. Detractors raged against the title of the work without realizing that their rants were making Simien's point for him. In their anger, these people vowed to boycott not only the program but Netflix as a whole.
That's a shame for those who aren't watching: They're missing one of the most challenging, compelling shows of the year. Simien's sharp, poignant, hilarious satire of race relations at college — set at fictional Ivy League school Winchester University — is special. It's the kind of show that stays with you long after you've finished watching, questions lingering in the mind.
Mic caught up with Simien at the ATX Television Festival to ask some of those questions, launching a conversation about season two, "safe spaces" and why the U.S still can't reckon with its history of slavery.
Mic: I was not expecting what I got when I first dove into Dear White People — that you had not strictly adapted the movie but basically wrote an alternate future version of what happened after the blackface party in the film. What inspired that approach?
Justin Simien (JS): It was always my instinct to continue from the movie. It never felt right to reboot it or restart it, or to do it with different characters. I thought it was kind of an opportunity. The movie ends with the blackface party, and obviously there are still people who don't know that's a thing. But instead of reintroducing that, or switching topics completely, I thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting if we meet our characters in the aftermath of this?" In America especially, we're always in the aftermath of some crazy, racial bullshit that happened. To start in the aftermath and then build to a new thing — that always felt right to me.
It was first and foremost important to me that, if you watched the movie, you felt like you had the inside track, moving forward and not repeating things. But if you haven't watched the movie, you could just join this world and not feel like you missed anything. Because of that, there's a little bit of retconning.
Was it always your intention to explore this world beyond the original movie?
JS: I don't know if it was intention. It was hope — I hoped that I'd be able to. When I was talking to college kids and touring, I was like, "Oh my god, there's so many other ways to cut this onion." There are so many other points of view. ... It just so happened that, of all the projects I was working on, that one moved the fastest.
I read an interesting piece about the show that argues that it effectively dismantles the misguided idea of college as a "safe space." Was that a purposeful message behind the show?
JS: Yes. Because the idea that America is a meritocracy is a complete illusion. It's an illusion that people of color have never held for this country. [With Dear White People], we have an Ivy League school, so the assumption is that everyone is privileged; everyone there is at the same socioeconomic level. But then we get into the differences of their lives. It felt like a way to encapsulate the bullshit of that illusion that America is a safe space for all people.
When you were planning out the 10 episodes of season one, how did you decide which characters received focus episodes — and which particular episodes they got?
JS: I knew that Coco, Sam, Lionel and Troy had episodes. But I also knew that Reggie — I needed to get into Reggie. Before we even wrote a single episode, I knew that episode five was going to be our midpoint, and I wanted a tone shift. I wanted it to deal with police brutality, gun violence against black people. But we talked about which character that should happen to. Everything we do in the show is a question of, "Who thinks they're most prepared for a situation but is actually the least prepared for that situation?" And that's how we landed on Reggie.
I wanted to surprise, too, in terms of who gets an episode. Gabe was sort of that wild-card episode, where you don't expect to hear from him in that way [since he's the only white character with a focus episode], but we do. I had the feeling that the last episode would be like an "all-stars" episode — one episode where we actually do get to cut between points of view. It's a combination of who did we want to explore, who was essential to do the meta-plot that's happening and who would surprise people when you learned more about them.
My hope is that, in a potential season two, Joelle could get her own episode.
JS: Yeah, that's a "No duh." [Ashley Blaine Featherston] is a superstar. Ashley's been a friend of mine for a while, and she's one of those girls where I'm just like, "Ugh, I hope no one discovers you first." I root for her, and I want her to get everything she auditions for, but in the back of my mind I'm like, "I want to break her." I was so honored that I got to work with her in a more extended way. She's in the movie, but she only has a line here or there. And I knew Joelle would pop [in the show], and I knew she would be one of the breakouts.
In season one, there are expectations of who the show follows. But she's absolutely someone that I'm dying to build an episode or more on.
Dear White People was written and shot before Nov. 8, 2016. Do you think season one would have looked any different if it had been produced after the election?
JS: It would be a little more pointed, I think. But the underlying current in America that made Trump the president was what we were talking about in the writers' room. It existed, and it was already shocking. Even if he hadn't won, the bullshit that Hillary [Clinton] would've had to go through — we already knew that, either way, it was gonna be crazy, and that the bubble of "racism is a fringe thing" was being popped all over the place. We wrapped on Election Day, but we had been incorporating these things.
When I got into post-production, some of the jokes that I felt were throwaways or Easter eggs about what was going on in the moment suddenly had an urgency that we didn't anticipate. We probably would have doubled down on some of it, but we were pretty aware that something was afoot in the country.
That reminds me of how Ava DuVernay's Selma was written and shot before Ferguson, but so many of the images in that movie evoke what happened in the weeks and months after Michael Brown's death.
JS: This is an issue that we continue to have amnesia about. We keep thinking that we're over it, but it's the same issue. ... We have yet to deal with — and I don't see, in the near future, us really dealing with — where racism comes from. We keep dealing with the symptoms and forgetting that there's a root problem here that's never been addressed. It sucks, but unfortunately, racism and trying to figure out who you are while all that's going on? For America, that's a bit of a timeless thing. That's built into the fabric of this country.
It's a poisoned tree.
JS: Absolutely. This country was founded on slavery, and our inability to deal with the atrocity of slavery and its aftermath is really the root of all this stuff. And we've never dealt with it. We've never as a country really taken it on.
JS: They came from me. When I'm writing I try — well, I don't really try, I more just like to incorporate these little, personalized touches. I always encourage my writers to do that, too.
First of all, I'm thinking about Sam introducing her white boyfriend to her black friends. I thought, "Gosh, there wouldn't be a better place for that to happen than an all-black viewing of a soap opera about a black woman and a white man." Plus, those Scandal viewing parties are such an ingrained part of my black experience. It was so specific, I just couldn't resist it. ... Shooting Defamation was the most fun I've ever, ever had.
And with Iyanla — she's one of those people who, genuinely, has probably saved my life a million times over. But at the same time, if you don't know what that is, it can be a bit shocking. It was a way to echo what was happening internally with Reggie, but also have some fun. It's a very specific show that only some of us know about, and those that don't will get used to it.
Are there any other shows you want to do that with?
JS: Yes. And I'm not gonna say, 'cause that would ruin the surprise! But absolutely. There were a couple that didn't make it into the first season that, I can't tell you, they're too good.
There are so many good options, too: Empire, Real Housewives of Atlanta, Basketball Wives ...
JS: The thing for people of color is, we don't have a lot of options. So we watch everything. Some of it is better than others. With Housewives, for instance, ideologically I'm kind of opposed to it, but I literally watch all of them. If I were to make fun of them, I'd really be making fun of myself more than the show itself. They're these things we complain about but still watch.
You just need a parody next season where everyone yells, "Who said that?"
JS: Right? "Who said that?" "Who said that?" "Who said that?"
We've talked about season two in a vague sense, but the show hasn't been officially renewed yet. Do you have any inclination as to what's going to happen?
JS: I have not gotten any official word on whether we're renewed. It seems like it's gonna happen, but I really don't know.
Do you have a particular story in mind?
JS: Yes, definitely. One of the things I'm most interested in right now is misinformation. The reason we're having such a hard time talking about race in this country is because no one really knows what got us here. People have assumptions — we have Black History Month, you learn a little about slavery, you've maybe seen a slave movie. But really, truly, the things that brought us to a world where there's a white race then there's other colors that go down the list? That didn't exist before, like, the 17th century. The world that we're in is a relatively new invention. There's a lot of things that got us here that, honestly, the average person doesn't know about and is actively being misinformed about. We talk about fake news; we've been telling each other fake news about this country since it was founded.
One of my "favorite" things is "Make America Great Again." You ask people, "When was America so great?" And usually people will talk about the '50s. In the '50s, our tax rate was 95%. It was not a conservative era in the way we think about conservative! The difference was that the tax money benefited white people. That's really the major difference. So again, there's a lot of confusion about what the past was like, what got us here.
It really comes down to misinformation, and now we're in an era where there are forces that are actively manipulating people into opinions, purposefully misinforming them. That's a topic I can't stop thinking about, so I think in some way, season two has to deal with that.
Dear White People season one is available to stream on Netflix.
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