Why the Creator of ‘Dear White People’ Is Doubling Down on Identity Politics
Posted May 3, 2018 2:28 a.m. EDT
Justin Simien, the 35-year-old creator of the “Dear White People,” is no stranger to provocation.
The satirical comedy, first a movie and now a Netflix show, revolves around five black students — Sam, Coco, Troy, Lionel and Reggie — at a fictional elite university who revel in the sorts of intemperate and intoxicating polemics that can sour a Thanksgiving dinner. A story line from the first season about an app called “Woke or Not,” for example, mercilessly parodied the characters’ self-conscious commitment to social justice.
But even Simien was not prepared for the controversy that engulfed the TV show’s rollout. After Netflix first released a teaser trailer last February, Simien was inundated with critical messages online, promoting the hashtag #BoycottNetflix and excoriating him for “reverse racism.”
“I read this review on some conservative site because I was so curious where it all was coming from,” Simien recalled in an interview at the Netflix offices in Manhattan late last month. “It was like they’d watched the show just enough to give their readers the impression that they’d watched it and then came up with the most insane interpretations. It wasn’t that they didn’t get it, it was that they refused to get it.”
That lesson, and Simien’s own reaction to the backlash, inspired Season 2 of “Dear White People,” which begins streaming May 4. In addition to online trolls, the show offers up irreverent takes on white allies, the strain of Afrocentric conservatives known as “Hoteps,” and campus free speech, among other hot topics.
Simien, who speaks in paragraphs and variously quoted Malcolm X, Eckhart Tolle and RuPaul, discussed why the new season never mentions President Donald Trump by name, what black auteurs owe to their audiences and his upcoming horror film about a (literal) killer weave.
“Any chance you get as a storyteller to make people see something that they never saw before, or to think in a new way — that’s the job,” he said. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q. There was some controversy over the title of the show last season, and this season the Sam character, who hosts a radio show within the show, also called “Dear White People,” deals with her own similar controversy. How did you digest all of the feedback from Season 1?
A. The backlash stuff was really interesting to me. They were so organized and they didn’t just come after us, they came after anything black — there were campaigns against “Black Panther,” too. I was so curious about it and I did a deep dive and started to try to figure out what were the tactics that they used and how were they so mobilized.
The other big thing that informed this season was that Trump won on the day we wrapped Season 1. And I was just so bewildered by how we got here. I started to really research and not just assume that I knew. I read a book called “The History of White People,” about all of the cultural decisions that led to the creation of the white race and why white is the ideal form of beauty, and it’s so arbitrary. I realized that the reason we can’t talk to each other is because people don’t know where this all comes from. So this season has a lot of history on its mind, too.
Q. When you’re investigating those questions on the show, do you worry that white people will just choose not to engage?
A. I think the key to the show is making you care about the characters first, because it’s not a thesis. And if we tell the truth about what they’re going through, then maybe you’ll care and think about it.
I think the show has two goals. One is to allow people who don’t necessarily look like us to see themselves in characters they don’t expect to, so that the next time they see a black guy at Starbucks, they won’t feel the need to call the cops on him.
And the other thing is to make people who’ve actually gone through these experiences go: “Oh my God, totally. I’m so glad someone finally put it that way.” I think both of those things allow black folks to feel more human in society.
Q. What do you make of the idea that some of that obsessive focus on identity is inherently divisive, and that minorities would be better served by a politics that focuses on what we all have in common?
A. I think people who are privileged can say something like that. Because the truth is, I could walk around all day saying: “I don’t identify with being black. I don’t identify with being gay.” But you know what’s going to happen to me? Society’s going to happen to me. I’m going to go into Starbucks and get arrested, or I’m going to walk through the wrong neighborhood in a hoodie.
When you don’t have to have the burden of identity, when you don’t have to code switch every day or constantly be aware of your surroundings, you get to say that. Part of the reason the show is called “Dear White People” is because there’s no way to be black in America without constantly having to explain or protect or defend yourself. Talking about that is not why Donald Trump is president. Q. The new season doesn’t mention Trump by name. Why not?
A. I just didn’t want to say his name. I didn’t want to give it that kind of power. I think the underlying issues that brought about the Trump presidency are American issues, and they’ve been around before Trump and they’ll be around after Trump.
Q. Being on Netflix, do you get much data about who’s watching you?
A. They keep things pretty close to the chest, but I know that Brazilians like us and I know that we’re big in Africa. In Africa they really hated [the Kenyan immigrant character, played by Jeremy Tardy] Rashid’s accent last year [laughs].
Q. Is the actor African?
A. He is African. And his accent is based on an actual Kenyan accent, but people thought it was too sing-songy. So we brought in the woman who was the dialect coach for “Black Panther” to give it some flavor and some nuance. But I’m sure people will still be mad.
Here’s the thing about being a black creator: [Scrutiny] is part of being in the ring. Black folks and the black diaspora are so starved for content that when you’re the only person telling the story there’s all these people that are like, “Well where’s my story?”
I remember reading this article about how “Black Panther” had failed the queer community by not expressing LGBT issues. And I was like, but it did so many things! It’s literally changed cinema for black people forever, and was an all-black cast, and made all the money in the world, and introduced African themes, and is opening in Saudi Arabia … but we didn’t have gay characters. So let’s just throw the whole thing away. That kind of thing can be a lot. But it’s the cost of telling stories in an oppressive society. You have to be prepared to take some of those jabs and you do the best that you can.
Q. Your next movie, “Bad Hair,” is about a woman who’s possessed by a sentient killer weave. Where’d you get the idea?
A. I always write because I’m really angry about something, and I was so angry that people weren’t seeing how black women are getting it from all angles. [If you’re a black woman,] you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, even though black women are always among the strongest members of our society and culture.
I was also really inspired by Korean horror movies, because hair possession is a subgenre there. I was just thinking, “How would we do this in America?” And of course it couldn’t just be fun — I always have to have something to say.