The Netflix series Dear White People, which picks up where the film of the same name leaves off, is a satirical look at America that weaves together the universal story of finding one’s own identity while forging your own unique path, set against the backdrop of a predominantly white Ivy League university where racial tensions are always just below the surface. It is a hilarious and heartfelt look at social injustice, cultural bias, political correctness and activism, and what that means in the millennial age, and it explores it all with such brutal honesty that you’ll sometimes want to look away while you’re laughing.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, show creator Justin Simien (who also wrote and directed the feature film) talked about how the Dear White People TV series came about, determining the format and structure of the show, putting together the team of writers and directors and finding the right showrunner, assembling this cast, how that Scandal parody came about, having a good idea of where Season 2 and 3 will go, and the influence of Trump’s America. He also talked about his desire to do sci-fi, musicals and drama features, and how he would gladly make a sci-fi musical, should someone give him the money to do so.
Collider: After the movie and the fact that the title alone seemed to stir people up, are you surprised that people seem to have got even more riled up with the TV series, even though it has the same title? Are you more desensitized to the reaction, at this point?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: You know what? I was more surprised at how organized they’ve gotten with their harassment. They totally organized a campaign against us, which was shocking. But at the end of the day, it’s the same vocal minority. They were never gonna watch the show, anyway. Once again, their outrage just really, really helped promote the show and made sure that everybody knew that there was a show called Dear White People coming on April 28th. It stings a little bit, just because I hate that, as a black artist, I always have to explain myself. But at the same time, as a storyteller, it’s fascinating because it really, for me, peeled away a layer on this really strange alt-right subculture, and I can’t wait to mine that for future episodes. And now that I have all of these like and dislike robots, it’s really weird. It opened my eyes to people who sit around and have meetings to talk about targeting certain liberals to try to take them down. Some people’s lives are defined by it. It’s really weird.
Do you feel like the reaction to the show really proves the point of the show?
SIMIEN: Every time. Every single time. I think that’s kind of fun, actually. I love reading about things like the reaction to A Clockwork Orange when it came out, or Do the Right Thing. That’s stuff that I was too young to be able to process, at the time, but my favorite artists went through that. It’s kind of flattering, to be honest.
How did the Dear White People TV series come about? Did you always feel like you had more to say than what you were able to say within the confines of a film? Did you have a plan to explore this in a TV format, after doing the film?
SIMIEN: It started forming in the back of my head, like most things. I had been writing this for years, and there were so many character threads, storylines, ideas and conversations that I had to drop, as the movie got closer to being a possibility for production. So, I already had a bank of stories, and then I went on the road with the movie. For about a year and a half, I paid the rent just visiting colleges that were in the middle of some racial crisis, to screen the movie and talk to students about it. A year and a half of my life, after that movie, was spent talking to students and kids that were directly dealing with it. At the end of that, I was chomping at the bit to keep going. Lionsgate brought us in for a meeting to discuss the possibility, I pitched my version of it, and we were off to the races, after that point. It really was a very organic process. I never felt like I had to fight for it, which is very unique in my experience of Hollywood, so far.
Showrunners and show creators talk about how much they love working for Netflix because they’re allowed to bring the voice they were hired for, and they get very minimal notes that are actually helpful. Did you find that to be the case, for yourself?
SIMIEN: Yeah. I think they were a little bit more hands on with me because it’s my first time doing a TV show, but I never felt like the notes were coming from some sort of ulterior motive. A lot of the time, when you get development notes, it’s more about audience share and fear and money. It has very little to do with telling the story. But every time we talked to Netflix, it was all about making sure the story was great and making sure that we were telling the story to the best of our abilities. They really continued to push us to do our best work. In that sense, it really was quite refreshing. And the wilder things that I wanted to do really didn’t get a lot of push-back. Exploring the different way of formatting the show, and certain themes that I thought for sure someone was going to have an issue with, they were great with. It was a unique first television experience.
How did you determine the length of the episodes, the number of episodes, and telling each episode from a different character’s point of view?
SIMIEN: I had that conceit in mind for awhile. Even stuff that comes out every week, I tend to wait until it’s over and binge it all together. It really seemed like I had an opportunity to do what I originally wanted to do with the film, which was to tell this really long, multi-protagonist piece, where every character had their own fully formed short film within the greater project. I thought it would be really cool to think of it as a single piece. The number of episodes and the timing, and all of that stuff, is contractual and more of the business side of things. For us, there were some stories that just didn’t need to be 30 minutes long. We’d watch a cut and it would feel like, “You know what? This could be shorter.” It served a purpose because the show is really binge-able. Not every episode requires a full half-hour, so sometimes you can watch three episodes and that feels like a very satisfying chunk that doesn’t take up too much of your time. So really, we ended up going a lot shorter than we were asked to because brevity is the soul of wit. We wanted it to be as funny and as concise as it could be.