From creator/executive producer/director/writer/co-showrunner Justin Simien, the Netflix satirical series Dear White People explores the universal story of finding one’s own identity against the backdrop of a predominantly white Ivy League university where racial tensions are always bubbling just below the surface. The 10-episode second season continues to follow a group of Winchester University’s students of color as they navigate the social injustice, cultural bias and political correctness (or lack thereof) in the millennial age, using brutal honesty that can be both heartbreaking and hilarious (and sometimes both at once) and that holds up a mirror to society.
During this in-depth 1-on-1 interview with Collider, filmmaker and storyteller Justin Simien talked about a wide range of topics, including how Season 2 of Dear White People evolved, what’s most impressed him about his cast, how Lena Waithe ended up on the show this season, guest casting, what he’d like to see for Season 3, how he put together his writers’ room, lining up the directors for each season, and keeping the show as real as possible. He also talked about his horror satire Bad Hair, which TV series he’d like to direct an episode of, the creative impact and inspiration of Donald Glover’s “This is America” video, and how he came to be directing the pilot for Lena Waithe’s Twenties, for TBS. Be aware that there are spoilers discussed.
Collider: Well, let’s get to the most pressing matter first because, when I spoke to you about Season 1, you had said that while you were waiting to hear about a pick-up for Dear White People, you were working on developing a few other projects and we talked about how you must absolutely make a sci-fi musical, since the world needs that desperately. Since then, have you thought of any ideas for this sci-fi musical that has to happen?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: It’s not a sci-fi musical, but I’m making a movie, called Bad Hair, this summer and it’s a horror satire about a woman who is slowly being possessed by her weave. It happens in the late ‘80s against the backdrop of the rise of New Jack Swing. So, while technically it’s not a sci-fi musical, it’s a horror film with heavy musical elements, so it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a baby step. Maybe the sci-fi musical will be the third film. I don’t know.
We still need the sci-fi musical, but that movie sounds amazing!
SIMIEN: Oh, it’s gonna happen! It’s definitely gonna happen!
I want it to happen because then I want it to be a Broadway show, after that.
SIMIEN: Right. And then, it can be a movie again.
In the meantime, Bad Hair sounds awesome. I can’t wait for that!
SIMIEN: I know! I can’t wait! I’m so giddy to make it!
When you go to people and say, “I want a make a horror movie about hair,” do they think you’re insane or are they like, “Please, sign me up for that,” because it is so original?
SIMIEN: Well the funny thing is, this actually started because I was sitting and talking with the financier and producer of Dear White People about this movie called The Wig, and how in Korean and Japanese horror films, there’s this sub-culture of hair possession movies. We just started riffing and joking, saying, “Oh, my god, how funny would that be in America?” I just laughed it off as a ridiculous idea, but then, slowly but surely, this satirical take on it started to blossom in my head and I came back and was like, “Guys, I have a pitch.” They were pretty receptive of it, but it wasn’t really until Get Out came out that people realized what I was talking about when I said, “You know, a horror-satire about the black experience.” Now that we have Get Out, people are like, “Oh, my god! Totally!” People get it now. But it’s wild and it’s gonna be really fun. Like everything I do, it comes out of me being angry about something, and I’m angry about the B.S. that black women have to go through, and that we all have to go through, to live up to these standards of beauty. And I grew up on horror movies. Little Shop Of Horrors is on of my favorite musicals. So, that clicked in my head as the thing called Bad Hair.
That’s awesome! Well, looking back on Season 1 of Dear White People, when do you feel like the show was at its best, and how did you want to build on that for Season 2?
SIMIEN: Well, I think the whole thing works, as a whole. Episode 5 is such a take-away because the episodes that precede it lull you into a sense of comedy and comfort, as it’s an introduction to the world, and then black comes at you real fast in Episode 5. I love the Lionel episode, with Troy and Lionel going to the bar, that Charlie McDowell directed. I didn’t direct it, but seeing Charlie direct the Lionel episode was like therapy for me ‘cause I could see all of these weird little perks of being gay and black in someone else’s hands, and it was nice to sit back and watch him do it. But I think that the show is always at its best when it’s in its most complicated, non-binary place, where you’re not really sure who is right and there isn’t really an answer, and you’re left with this visceral experience of it, and you have to go out in the world and talk about it and figure out what to do. We just tried to find a way to have those moments, in every episode, and still build to something, which I think we do, but also really treat each episode as a way to go as deeply into the characters, as we did with Reggie in Episode 5 or with Coco in Episode 9.
I love Episode 9, in Season 2, where you took Sam home to deal with personal tragedy, because I thought that allowed you to get so much more personal and it was just such a great episode.
SIMIEN: It also talks about how complicated this black and white thing is because we’re all talking about racism, and we should be talking about racism and how to end it, but at the end of the day, this is a social construct that is being applied to us, and it’s messing up our families and our communities. The fact that Sam feels alienated from her dad because of this thing called race, and that her and Gabe, who want to be with each other can’t. I wanted to get at that without talking about it, but just show it. That opportunity allowed us to see past Sam’s persona, as a talking head or a mouthpiece, and get into the things that make her click and that make her ashamed and that make her happy and that she lives for. I felt like we really owed her that.
When we spoke about Season 1, you told me that you had a great idea for what Season 2 would be and that you felt really connected to what it should be about, but that you also wanted to keep it loose. So, how closely did Season 2 follow the plan you had for it? Does this Season 2 look like what you thought it was going to be?
SIMIEN: To a degree. In the aftermath of the so-called alt-right response to Season 1, I was really, really fascinated by that. After I wrote my Medium article about why I named it Dear White People, I went undercover in some of those spaces and found a lot about how they work and how some of it is very crafted and organized to create a sense of outrage between communities that is actually artificial, but is masquerading as authentic. I just thought that was so interesting and I felt so connected to that. But then, on the other side of it, at the same time, we were reeling from the response to the first season and I wanted to do independent research and really get into where this idea of whiteness came from, in the first place. I realized that the connection between where we are now and where we’ve always been is that misinformation, fake news, and secret societies and networks of people has always been in the DNA of the country. The reason why we’re able to celebrate Thanksgiving is because, in no meaningful way, do we really acknowledge the genocide of the Native American people, and the reason why folks can walk around and say, “These Black Lives Matters kids are terrorists and they’re just causing trouble, and if everyone would just stop talking about race we’d be fine,” is because they don’t have a clear understanding of what happened after slavery and after the Civil Rights era and why the prison system became disproportionately geared towards black men to serve economic gains in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. People don’t understand our history. That phrase, “We’re as sick as our secrets,” just felt like we were talking about the same thing, so I knew that must be the basis for the series. But we also had the benefit of having actors that have lived as these characters, and writers who had written in these voices. There was a lot of room for discovery and to bring things to the table that we wanted to explore and talk about, that we just didn’t get a chance to get into. Because we only have 10 episodes, there’s always stuff left over. We still have stuff from Season 1 that we’re waiting to do. It just created a lot of material that felt really relevant and fresh, with what we’re dealing with right now.
Now that you’ve had two seasons with this cast, what has most impressed you about them, the work they’ve done, and the way that they’ve grown with these characters?
SIMIEN: I’m always impressed by the sense of community between the cast. It’s really easy to be that attractive and talented and be assholes, and they’re just so kind. The show is an ensemble. Everyone has a moment, but not everyone gets a moment in each episode, in the same way, and the way that they support each other’s moment is so cool to watch. They’re really supportive and they really care. Nobody is showing up just to get a paycheck. Everyone is showing up because they deeply care about these characters and about what the show means in the world, and it makes it so rich because, at a certain point, we’re looking at them just as much as they are looking at us, to influence where the characters go and what we talk about.