An interview with Justin Simien.
Of the films that get into Sundance, few become hits. Even fewer are adapted and reworked into a Netflix TV show. In 2014, Justin Simien’s feature film début Dear White People won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize. And in April 2017, Netflix released Season 1 “Dear White People”. Picking up where the film left off, albeit with a few changes in cast, the series is as biting and poignant as the film. Weaving together different backstories and exploring intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, “Dear White People” is a satirical take on contemporary activist culture. You’re never quite sure whether the show is making fun of its characters’ constant use of the word ‘woke’ and ‘hashtag’ (often in the same sentence) or whether the language is a sincere moralizing tool. Either way, it successfully offers a compelling and entertaining perspective on what it’s like to be a black student at a white college in America.
In our chat, we talked about writing the show during the Trump presidency, the power of comedy and what’s to come in Season 2.
We reached him by phone, in Los Angeles.
When you made Dear White People (the film) in 2014, there was something very prescient about making a movie about racism when Obama was President. It felt like an important acknowledgment that, despite the election of the first black President, it didn’t mean that racism had been magically eradicated. Now that the 45th President is in power has the show’s mission statement changed at all?
Hm, not really for me because I actually wrote the first draft of the script during the Bush presidency. It’s been through a few different cultural shifts throughout its various iterations before anyone even saw it. But I think that going from an Obama era to a Trump era, for us it was obviously deeply disturbing – and for anyone that was paying attention, but it also wasn’t that surprising. Especially for the writers, we were in this milieu of the alt-right and a populist rise of racism in America. These were things we were already following and tracking. I think it just sort of put a sense of urgency on us to decipher and diagnose a little bit faster. And a little bit bolder, and a little bit more to the point. There is very little that is in the movie or in the first season that doesn’t apply today.We’re still dealing with blackface parties and we’re still being told that racism is over. The more and more I went into history to learn about and to read and ask what the questions that I think every liberal was asking, which was ‘how did we get here?’, I realized that that’s sort of always been the mantra. Back when slaves were being freed: ‘what do you have to complain about? You’re free.” It’s been the mantra of whiteness. And I do think ‘whiteness’ instead of ‘racist’ because whiteness did come first. This idea that there is this protected class in America that will always be separate from birth. That idea, which was codified in the U.S Constitution after the Abolition of Slavery, that came first and that’s why we have the division of the races, which was based on really terrible debunked science. So it made me need to go all the way there in this little comedy because the consequences of not going there feel more dire than ever.
I think what’s so interesting about the show, and what distinguishes it from other black TV shows airing right now, is that sometimes the show feels more like a fun college sitcom, but other times it’s a searing critique of racial politics in America. What starts off as a fun college party delves quickly into a standoff between Reggie and a cop. It gets real fast.
Yeah, black comes out you fast.
[laughs] Is the comedy something that you actively seek out, or it comes very naturally?
It comes very naturally. When I was learning about drama, we always talked about how tragedy is a visceral exercise. But the strength of comedy is that it’s an intellectual exercise. Comedy makes you think first, feel second. Whereas drama makes you feel first, think second. And i think that’s why comedy has a unique opportunity to discuss race, not just feel the impact but really discuss it. It’s already crying to you to be in a thoughtful space because you’re laughing, and laughing makes you feel good. It puts you in a place where things that might’ve seemed more threatening to you, you’re in a place where you can accept them more. It’s always the comedies that really get us thinking and talking. Even movies that we don’t consider comedies, movies like Barry Lyndon, Network or Do The Right Thing. We call them dramas now. But their power lies in their ability to make us laugh before we realize that we’re laughing at ourselves.
Season 1 was mostly centered on this one event. The blackface party. Every episode was either leading up to it or explaining the aftermath. Is Season 2 going to take the same format?
Sort of. In a lot of ways, Season 2 is a parody – well, not a parody, but a bizzaro version of Season 1. I think you’ll see that right away in Episode 1. In the beginning of Episode 1, everything is just fucked up now. And I think that’s how a lot of us felt when we woke up in Trump’s America. Everything just felt off. So while we don’t have the same centralized event, we are now reeling from what happened to Reggie after the failed protest at the end of Season 1. So we’re still sort of in the aftermath of this thing that happened. I feel like we went a lot deeper with each character. I think you kind of lose track a little bit of what’s happening in the larger world. Because now we’ve introduced everybody, so we can take the elevator down to each of the characters. I think the scope of Season 2 is much larger. It’s less about the events, and more about the effect of those events.
And because it’s set on a college campus, there are so many different types of activism at play. There’s Sam, who wants to hold everyone accountable and fight the administration to the death, but there’s also Coco who would rather hang out with her white friends and calls out Sam for her colorism.
I think Coco had a really powerful statement to say in Season 1, when she told Sam that she wasn’t acknowledging her white-skin privilege. And what she’s saying is that Sam gets to be “loud” and “angry” and “aggressive” in a way that Coco can’t because Coco fits way more into the stereotype of a black woman. Sam gets to be that girl, at least in Coco’s eyes, without suffering any of the ramifications of it. What we see in Season 2 is what that mental process is, what power looks like to Coco, what getting it is like for her. And for Sam, she’s finding the edges to what she can and can’t do. That there is a limit to her voice as a woman, but also as a black woman. And does that change her life, change her approach to activism?
So, what can fans expect from the DVD release of Season 1?
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that can’t really live on Netflix. I did a whole commentary for the season. I did a lot of talking, in a room. It definitely gives people who are a fan of the show more insight into the process. And it actually gives you insight into the process for Season 2.
Last thing, can we expect more “Scandal” parodies?
Yes. A lot.