Netflix’s Dear White People has been portraying racial tensions at a fictional white Ivy League university for three seasons and is set to portray them for one final run once Justin Simien and his team are able to return to filming.
Last month, it was revealed by data from research firm Parrot Analytics that the comedy had received an uptick in viewership as the Black Lives Matters protests were in full force.
Creator Simien tells Deadline that he’s pleased that his show is meeting the cultural moment but it’s under “devastating” and “tragic” circumstances. He explains how the show has been “screaming at a wall” for years.
Based on his debut indie feature, Dear White People is set against the backdrop of a predominantly white Ivy League university where racial tensions bubble just below the surface. The satirical series — which picks up where the 2014 Sundance hit left off – follows a group of Winchester University’s students of color as they navigate a diverse landscape of social injustice, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof) and activism in the millennial age.
The show stars Marque Richardson, Logan Browning, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori and Ashley Blaine Featherson and is produced by Lionsgate.
Simien also talks about the potential for spin-offs and how he’s feeling ahead of the show’s final season.
DEADLINE: Dear White People has received an uptick in viewership in the last month or so but I imagine that’s bittersweet given it’s in light of current events. How are you feeling about that?
Justin Simien: Yeah, it’s one of those current events that you can’t feel good about having a bunch of people show up to your work because of something that is personally devastating and tragic. It’s also something we’ve been speaking about for years and that all of my work speaks to in some way. We’ve been kind of screaming at a wall and hearing all sorts of commentary from ‘Do we really need a show like this right now’ and ‘Are we past all of this? Why are you making this about race?’ All of the sort of typical racial gaslighting that a black person experiences in their life, this show has experienced. That doesn’t go away just because, you know, people may be paying attention now. But I certainly am glad they are and I certainly feel validated in that I was able to make something that was not easy to make, but that nevertheless you know might be meeting the cultural moment right now.
DEADLINE: This is a show that has always addressed these issues, right?
Justin Simien: Absolutely. Before we found out about the uptick in viewership, I hadn’t really stopped to rewatch anything. The movie, the series, none of it since I made it and particularly with the series where so many fantastic writers and directors are involved and we are going into our fourth and final season. I just wanted to rewatch it and to sort of just put myself in the seat of the audience. I found that, what was happening in the George Floyd protests were sort of gaining traction as a national movement and then a global movement.
I found that we were speaking to so many moments that I was experiencing and honestly that took me by surprise even though I obviously made the show. Because we don’t sort of just have an episode of police brutality, we continually deal with the human face and the human experience of having to live in this sort of marginalized space over three seasons. So, there were just all of these aspects that made me feel hurt in seeing even though I sort of engineered the show. For me that’s been a really kind of cool and unexpected thing. I don’t know, it just feels good that I think it might be doing that for other people.
DEADLINE: It’s a comedy, does that make it harder or easier to address these issues?
Justin Simien: I think the comedy takes the piss out of it, you know? I think when you start watching Dear White People whatever you think the show might be based on the title you immediately recognize that the show is kind of making fun of everybody in humanity.
Like, everyone’s sort of foibles are on full display including and especially the black characters that make up the center of that narrative. You realize that the show really isn’t about sort of putting anyone in a corner, white people either, it’s really more about inviting everyone to see the humanity in these people, in these sort of black and brown people who might represent something so specific in your mind. But when you start to see them live and love and just trying to get through school you realize these are just human beings that are being sort of forced into these really strong identities by society, but they’re just like me. You know even if I may not be woman or I may not be gay or you know you may not be black, you realize these people are having the same experience I’m having. I think that, that actually is one of the most powerful things cinema, even though it’s a TV show it’s still cinema, can do is allow you to feel empathy for a person that you may not have encountered in your regular everyday life.
It’s set in a fictional Ivy League partly because the Ivy League is supposed to kind of represent several kinds of institutions. It can represent America. It can represent the world. I’ve seen the film and the show resonated in countries that weren’t America. So, you know, Winchester’s kind of a stand in for really any institution.
DEADLINE: You’ve reinvented each season as they’ve gone along. How did you do that for season three?
Justin Simien: I mean, part of it is just a function of being a Netflix show and not knowing whether or not you’re going to come back when you finish each season. So, I needed to make the show in a way that if we didn’t come back for season two or we didn’t come back for season three or we didn’t come back for season four you felt like you had a unified and complete story. But there’s still something there that begs the question of what might next season be about? Then the other part of it is just that I love television, I love the way cinema has expanded in television, but I come from a feature world.
What you’re sort of taught in film school and what I was taught as a writer is that in television you create a world that has to sustain itself forever. The characters can never solve their fundamental problem. They can never change. Essentially, you have to get people in the mood to watch the same thing over and over again for as long as possible. I just felt like we could reject that a little bit in this world of streaming where all 10 episodes are available right away. I wanted to create something where if I watch all 10 episodes at once it feels like a unified movie. And if I want to say watch the sequel, which is the next season, tomorrow, I’m watching a different movie.
I’m not watching 10 of the same storylines repeat themselves, which I think even the best television shows sometimes struggle to not replicate themselves at a certain point. I just wanted to build that into the DNA of the show. I think The Good Place did that to great acclaim as well. There’s something about the world of streaming that it just felt like I had permission to do and it’s been really fun. It also allows me to bring new energy and new life to each season and feel like we’re showing up to a new job. You know we haven’t worked out all the kinks yet there’s a whole new set of kinks to work out.
DEADLINE: It’s obviously quite self-referential, I enjoyed the meta lines about the a third season of a Netflix show.
Justin Simien: Sure. Well, it’s tricky. Season three is sort of where you kind of know who you are and you know how to do the show now, because you’ve been doing it, but at the same time you’re like well we’ve already kind of explored the obvious things so where do we go now? A lot of season threes, and this is not about any show in particular, but one of the things that you kind of notice with season threes is that you sort of start to see repetitions and you sort of start to see like redo’s or you sort of start to see like sequels of things that you’ve already seen. I just wanted to kind of throw all of that out the window and let the audience know that, yes, this season feels very different than the other seasons and the places that characters are going are very different, but it’s okay we know that we’re putting you through that and it will totally be worth it. So, that’s kind of what that sort of call out was about.
DEADLINE: You also parody the entertainment business in general whether it’s The Handmaid’s Tale style parody, the Tyler Perry-esque character and Cynthia who’s sort of an Ava Duvernay-esque character.
Justin Simien: I’ll say this is not in any way based on Ava. I just want to say that. But she does represent what happens when you kind of meet your hero as a black person. You realize that your hero is just as scarred and disfigured by racism as you might be and they aren’t sort of all these things you’ve been projecting onto them. What do you do then? But you know Hollywood is one the things that we take aim at including ourselves. The last episode of season three is where we finally get to answer the question that’s been asked of me since I made the movie, which is what if there wasn’t black people? And you know in that opening segment I am really coming for myself. I’m sort of parodying my own style. Because I think none of us sort of get to make a thing and then sort of decide that’s just going to be the thing forever.
I think what this movement and nation is asking us to consider is that maybe every day we have to question the status quo. Like, we have to get into a rhythm of questioning the status quo and not just think that we did it once and we’ll never have to do it again, because lots of things hide in our blind spots. Racism is one of those things that sort of hides in popular culture in plain sight and always has. So, when we’re parodying or just even referencing other shows it’s not so much to call out those shows, but it’s to call out the way in which popular culture always sort of hides little subtle misogynistic or racist or homophobic kind of meanings behind popularity. I don’t think that we get to abstain ourselves from that critique.
DEADLINE: Where are you at with season four?
Justin Simien: Well, the fourth season has been written and unfortunately has been proven, to me and the writers anyway, to be more relevant than it was before we even knew that we were sort of making this show for a post-George Floyd world. We’re just kind of waiting to figure out what is the safest way to shoot the show. I think all of Hollywood is grappling with how do you start production back safely and that still can meet the ambitions of the season? I think we’re grappling with that and maybe we’ll get a chance to shoot it this year. I certainly hope so.
DEADLINE: Would you have been shooting by now?
Justin Simien: Yeah. We would’ve, I think, been done or at least on the road to being done by this point if things had gone according to plan. But when the lockdown started we were a few months into our writers’ room. We had well over half the season to complete, but we had still very much begun scripting and had certainly figured out what the season was going to be and all that good stuff.
DEADLINE: What themes are you going for in season four?
Justin Simien: Virtue signalling is going to be a big part of the season. The myth of meritocracy, which sounds so highfalutin, but this idea that we can sort of put up an Instagram post, to support black lives and then sort of like wipe our hands and we’re done. Or the sort of false equivalent of a black person getting an opportunity because suddenly the world is invested in black lives and they think that they’ve done enough. You know what happens next? You know capitalism is still here and alive and well. Racism and the patriarchy and all kinds of horrible things live on in every institution, including capitalism.
So, what happens to a black life after it’s been declared that it mattered was really the question of this season before we realized how urgent that question needed to be asked. There’s also just a big aesthetic idea behind this season that will be revealed later that I’m really, really excited about and really sets the season apart from any version of Dear White People that’s come before it.
DEADLINE: Have you changed anything in light of current events?
Justin Simien: Not really. I think the thing that we’re going to do now, which we kind of always do before shooting, is touch ups. I think there’s some things that we realize we can actually tune up a little bit and turn up because people are actually ready for it. The thing about Dear White People is we’re trying to tell the truth. We’re always trying to meet people where they’re at in popular culture. What we realized is there’s some things that we can just say. We can just flat out unabashedly say because white fragility is just a little more dirty these days than it was before. People are a little bit more willing to hear it and take it and own up to it. If anything it’s just going to get sharper but it always does, I mean, that’s kind of the best part.
DEADLINE: How are you feeling about it being the last season?
Justin Simien: It’s going to be really sad, but for me it’s really time. I mean, this is something I’ve been pouring every part of me into since 2005. The movie came out in 2014, but I’ve been living with this child for a long time and you know he’s a 15-year-old now or she’s a 15-year-old now or they’re a 15-year-old now. I’m not sure. But I’m proud of it. I think that there’s a world in which certainly the format that we created with this show is absolutely living on and flourishing in other television shows and in movies. There might be ways for the characters to live on too but this particular chapter of these characters’ lives for me needs to come to a satisfying conclusion because there are other stories that I need to tell.
DEADLINE: It sounds like you’re still considering spin-offs, is that right?
Justin Simien: I absolutely would love the idea of spinoffs. I think that the format and the show structure that we created with Dear White People is something that even younger, more radical voices could step into and tell their own stories. I think Winchester, at least if I had my way, would live on as an institution that could continue to be a stage for these conversations. But as an artist I’m eager to also move on from my personal college experiences and tell other kinds of stories. I love cinema and I love storytelling and I want to work in different genres. I have a movie coming up this year called Bad Hair, which is very different from Dear White People aesthetically.
DEADLINE: Do you think you’ll hand off the world of Dear White People to someone else?
Justin Simien: Yeah. I mean, the thing about Dear White People is that it’s been designed very specifically to be a community experience. It’s like when Barry Jenkins comes to the set to direct an episode that is Barry Jenkins’ episode. I don’t lord over Barry Jenkins telling him how to shoot the show and I have that attitude with every department. I want everyone in that show to feel like they completely own their area. You know the writers really bring themselves and their personal experiences to the scripts. The directors bring their own aesthetic styles.
That’s all baked into it. The things that are important that need to last are very clear and the things that are up for interpretation, I think, are clear too. I could certainly see a world in which someone with something else to say something more interesting the next step of what I’ve been saying could walk into the campus of Winchester and shake it up. I would certainly, as a fan, be excited to see that happen.
DEADLINE: Are you still working on your Sylvia Robinson biopic?
Justin Simien: Always, man, always. You know movies about black people in black hats are a long and hard road. I’ll say the lockdown has been kind of helpful that way too in that I’ve really been able to pour my time and energy into a wide variety of projects. Hopefully there’s some news and announcements coming soon across the board, but that is definitely a movie that I just love with my whole heart and feel very passionate about.