Justin Simien made a huge splash with his 2014 film Dear White People. Getting the film made was a process from funding to festivals, eventually showing up at Sundance and Tribeca. The film was eventually modified into a series at Netflix by Simien who expanded the story and explored the many layers of the black experience and the racism contextualized.
Dear White People is now in its third season, and the show was able to take the foundation of the incredible first two seasons, explore new territory, and deconstruct some of the previous story line structure. In the third season, the show heavily explores hero worship within the black community along with the Me Too Movement. In this story line, they are able to explore how race has intersected with Me Too, while deconstructing what it means for Black Americans to reconcile this with people who lift up their voices (the Moses character played by Blair Underwood). How do movements intersect? The show addresses that movements do not have to operate in a vacuum and creates a story to show how Black Lives Matter and Me Too come together to help create a space for voices.
This show is groundbreaking with incredible characters discussing the depth of their experiences. It’s also incredibly funny and heartwarming. You fall in love with these characters’ stories, and in that, you get to see the authentic representation of young Black Americans in college. My favorite episode this season was the final episode which essentially posits the absurd question Simiem would hear from countless white folks, “What if there was a Dear Black People?” This episode and this show are still pushing boundaries in its third season.
Please check out this interview and watch the utterly brilliant Dear White People.
Awards Daily: Dear White People balances the real experiences of racism both overt and with microaggressions. How do you balance the tone while keeping the show entertaining?
Justin Simien: I think it comes down to character. The focus of the show is these characters. It doesn’t matter if they make brilliant points about racism if you do not care about the characters. We have to create compelling characters that will hook viewers and allow them to care about their journey. Then, we can create strong story lines that allow us to have deep conversations centered on racism.
AD: One of my favorite elements involved intersecting the relationships between the Black men and women with their heroes and the people they don’t worship. Talk to me about the importance of this thread.
JS: I think it comes down to wanting to uplift black voices in our community. We were unpacking the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter. The show tackles a larger question in season three which is “Why is it so difficult for black male perpetrators to be called out?”
Heroes represent your best qualities in your community. For Reggie, the Moses character was the reason he got out of bed while navigating his own anger, denial and bargaining. Reggie was at the center of a situation where a gun was pulled on him at a party, and Moses, a man he looked up to (for the work he was doing) saved him. The story posits the concept of hero worship in our community with the Me Too Movement. Throughout the season, it seemed like Reggie was at odds with this moment. I wanted to bring this all to head.
I also wanted to bring out changes in season three that would go there and be messy and delve deeper into the intersections of different movements along with changing things up and not sticking with the status quo for the series.
AD: One of my favorite parts of season three is the few jokes or lines you throw out there that talk about shows missing the mark in the third season. Why did you decide to include that and how did this run thematically throughout the season?
JS: It was a signal to the audience that the third season was going to be experimental. Oftentimes in the first season, you are providing the groundwork for the series. The second season is when a show is firing on all cylinders and people are invested in shows taking off. I had to ask myself in the third season do we do what we know works or do we try something different and get more experimental and explore new ideas within the third season?
I wanted to create a world where the characters can do things where we can use what we know about and see them grow and explore their voices because that’s what people do in real life. In the new world of streaming and limited series, this felt our chance to do something different. I wanted to call out the norm, so we could name it up front. Those jokes or lines were ways for us to signal to viewers this is where we are going.
I drew a lot of inspiration from jazz. Jazz has a tremendous influence on the show. You will see that the different buildings on campus have names themed after elements of jazz. In this season you hear all these different bee bops. Every character was going in a different direction and playing their own riff: Sam was off doing her thing, Lionel was off doing his thing, but in the end it all comes together and the story connects around the different plots and movements that affected our characters. The great thing about jazz is it takes all these disparate parts and brings together a harmony. We brought out all these different stories to hit the right notes and create a story we wanted to tell this season.
AD: Hero worship was a key element of your story but you also explored Sam’s connection with a man who represented Tyler Perry who you played in the series. Talk to me about exploring this topic.
JS: When you are breaking all of this down and what you expect from either Tyler Perry or a persona, your gut is to attack. I wanted to correct the idea. I do not think Black artists should be pitted against one another. I think any Black artist that is making something that an audience is showing up for is valuable. It was important to explore this, and I think was another different topic we wanted to explore in this season. Tyler Perry is obviously there creating material that people enjoy and consume, and this was a way to unpack and explore that topic for Sam and really myself as an artist.
AD: A big part of season three involved the secret society finally coming to the forefront. What was your goal with this story?
JS: The Order of X represents how we have been thinking of Obama for the last four years. There is going to be this heroic behind the scenes person who will save us. We get into this cycle of projecting, unseen figures or groups as monoliths who represent something greater or something intangible. The goal was to show that we can be the heroes ourselves. Hope in a way becomes a disillusionment. It becomes a cycle that is perpetuated in the way we view leadership as a singular or in group form. I wanted to work through all of those feelings.
The idea of this season was to “kill the narrator,” and I wondered if the show had outgrown this plot point. This was another way for us to explore a new ground within the series too. We are all looking for a narrator in life, for someone to lead the world. The real movement is about moving beyond what has been dictated to us from the past, including protest. It’s time to find our own voices within Black Lives Matter movement. I wanted these characters be in charge of their own journey and not have it centered on this monolith, group, or powerful individual.
AD: The last episode puts Flava Flav in the White House and in a way posits the absurd idea of Black supremacy. Talk to me about this episode, and how this concept came about.
JS: The episode is essentially titled Dear Black People, and we eventually find out that the episode is actually an article. The episode came about because I was playing with the topic I was vocalizing online with Dear White People and testing out Sam’s voice. The first questions I got from people online was, ‘What if there was a Dear Black People?’ Having people ask this question about Black voices was absurd, and it’s a form of racial gas lighting. So, when we were talking about flipping the script this season, we decided to bring the absurdity of Dear Black People to the forefront to close out the season and help with that paradigm shift we created for season three.
When white people claim white victimhood and you examine this, literally it’s absurd. When you see white people clamoring to lead their rebellion, it’s absurd. The idea that a Black reality star who’s only qualification is being entertaining is absurd. When you reverse the paradigm in Dear Black People, everything is absurd. I wanted this episode to explore every aspect of the absurd that had been thrown my way.
Shade is the show’s love language. When we reference Handmaid’s Tale or Scandal in those television episodes within the series, we are not mocking but actually laying the ground for their relevance in the cultural conversation. I love those shows.
In the end, I wanted to shade myself in the last episodes, the color schemes, quoting old movies. This was me taking things from the beginning of my career and flipping the paradigm. It was a very meta moment in the show when the show is very meta. It allowed us to do things we had not done before. I want to continue to do this and elevate voices as we push forward in this current movement.
Dear White People is now streaming on Netflix.