‘Dear White People’ creator Justin Simien takes his story to Netflix
The writer-director-producer talks about the transition from film to TV and working with a new cast
When Justin Simien created the 2014 film Dear White People, he had no big expectations.
“I think I had fears more than anything,” he said. “I was afraid that people would hate it or wouldn’t get it, so when that didn’t happen, the rest of it was sort of like gravy on the top.”
On Friday, Dear White People the series was released on Netflix, and it picks up where the film left off. It follows a group of students of color at the fictional Winchester University as they navigate a landscape of social injustice, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof) and activism, all the while leading with laughter.
The series’ initial focus is on Samantha White (Logan Browning). She heads the Black Student Union at Winchester University and hosts a campus radio show called Dear White People, on which she confronts the campus’ lack of diversity.
Produced by Lionsgate, the series has a new cast. The stars include Browning, Brandon P. Bell (Troy), Antoinette Robertson (Coco), DeRon Horton (Lionel), John Patrick Amedori (Gabe), Ashley Blaine Featherson (Joelle) and Marque Richardson (Reggie). Yvette Lee Bowser (A Different World, Living Single) serves as showrunner and executive producer, while Stephanie Allain (Hustle & Flow, Beyond the Lights) and Julia Lebedev (Dear White People) executive-produce.
The 33-year-old Simien, who was writer, director and executive producer of the film, attended Chapman University in Orange, California, where he saw many incidents that would become an inspiration for the film. He spoke to The Undefeated about his journey:
Was it a lot of work to create the series?
Yes, to say the least. It’s a marathon because I’m not sure if I’m completely recovered from making the movie. It’s just nonstop. I’m not complaining, because I got to live my dream for like a year and a half. But I mean, from the minute I could see the Bible until the minute I wrapped the editing on the last episode, it requires full, complete commitment.
There’s a lot of people that you’re working with. Not everyone has the time and the resources they need. You’ve got to be at peak level, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Yvette Lee Bowser, who was my showrunner and created No Big Deal, created Living Single, and is doing A Different World. She’s been through this so many times. But still this was a very hectic, arduous process, laborious process, and that took me for a loop for sure, but like in the best possible way.
What was the most difficult part of transitioning from the film to the series?
I think [for] the film, the hardest part was we just didn’t have a lot of resources at our avail. We were working with a very limited budget and a very limited timeline. … I wanted to honor my vision toward it closely as I could with the resources that I had and try to squeeze everything as close to a diamond as you can make it — that was the hardest part.
Every single day, fighting the insecurities, fighting the fact that you haven’t slept for days, problem-solving, and not only making it work but, like, trying to make it shine, trying to make it dope. That was the hardest part about the movie.
I think with the show the hardest part was really just endurance. You’ve got to do that every day on a TV show. And it’s not like the writers and the directors, they’re just going to make it, you know what I mean? Especially when it came out of my head so specifically. It’s not like this existed already as a comic book and I came on board to figure it out as a TV show. These are characters that come from me. So it’s a very hand-on process and it’s a very long process. So just getting used to that, just getting used to the rhythm of it, getting used to the pace of it, that was probably the most challenging thing.
How did being at Chapman University inspire you?
It’s my alma mater, so I ain’t mad, all right. It was a good education, but the biggest thing was the culture shock. Going from Houston, Texas, and living in the city really … I was surrounded by all kinds of people all the time, and it’s a bustling city and you see black people everywhere.
At Chapman, it really was a very white, Republican majority of people. The film school was pretty international, and you could chop it up with people from different cities and different races and stuff like that within the film program. But, by and large, that part of the country is very white, Republican, and they’re just people who honestly had never met a black person before. They were well-intentioned but poorly informed, and just that awkwardness of just trying to find myself in that kind of environment — that’s really what spawned the movie.
There certainly wasn’t a “blackface party” that I was aware of on my campus, thank goodness, and some of the events in the film were certainly borrowed and condensed and movie-ized versions of things that happened. But the thing that was true for me at Chapman was just getting used to such a lack of diversity amongst a general population of that city, of that town.
It was the culture shock of it all as opposed to like someone being openly racist or antagonistic against me. That I did not experience. No. It’s a lot of lovely people there, but it’s a still very specific part of the country.
But then I have a career in Hollywood, so I had to get used to that culture shock. There’s a lot of black folks working in the industry, but Hollywood’s a predominantly white place. I’m certainly almost always the single black person voicing my particular opinion in a given group of people, so I had to kind of get used to it, and in a lot of ways that’s what the movie was about too.
It was like if you’re a person of color and you’re trying to navigate your way in this country, at some point in time you’re going to have to deal with people that have very specific ideas of what and who you are before you even open your mouth. It’s just going to be a part of your experience, and that’s what the kids are going through in the movie, too, and in the show, of course.
How did you come up with that satirical technique in telling the story?
I think it starts with me as an audience. Remember, that’s the stuff I’ve always loved. I love movies and I love television shows that challenge me or force me to confront something. 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie of all time, but I was so pissed at that movie. I was so angry because I tried to watch it all of these times and I just didn’t get it. I could not get through the monkey sequence and I was so mad, so it was like, ‘What is everyone talking about? This movie is so f—ing slow. I hate it.’
It’s my favorite movie of all time, and so I’m attracted to doing work that provokes an emotional response but provokes a response for a purpose, to illuminate something. I think being attracted to that stuff, I just naturally try to emulate it, make stuff that was like it.
It wasn’t like this master plan. It’s like I sit down, an idea occurs to me, and what comes out is what it is. I’m either pleased with that or I’m not. It is kind of a process of, like, eliminating the things I don’t like until I think it’s OK. That’s just kind of how I work. I don’t know that I set out like, ‘Oh, I’m going to make Jurassic Park.’
What’s the difference in having a new cast?
Well, when we set out to do the show, I wanted everybody back. That just wasn’t possible for a bunch of logistical reasons. Like a lot of those m—– were like, ‘We’re in Marvel movies now, Justin, so we’re not available.’ That was just amazing.
Everybody’s busy and, of course, if you throw one new cast member into the mix, like it changes the dynamic of everything. It’s sort of everyone has to be re-evaluated now. But what I loved about Logan and Antoinette and John Patrick and DeRon is that they absolutely paid respect to what the actors before them did, but they weren’t afraid to sort of put it in their own language, or own body language.
Like Samantha White in the movie and Samantha White in the show are the same character, but Tessa [Thompson] as Samantha White and Logan as Samantha White are very different people. I could see them having a conversation and not vibing or getting along, but there being some tension, but they’re both playing the same character on the page.
That’s a really hard thing to do as an actor, particularly in TV. In theater it happens all the time. I mean, actors play roles. … I mean, you don’t expect to see the same person in Macbeth that you did the last time or the last time it was performed. That’s not even an expectation in the theater. But in film and TV … it can be a little awkward, especially if the actor that’s doing it is like doing an impression or doing an impersonation of the person that came before them. It just feels flat.
What do you see yourself doing next?
I’m a storyteller. It’s what I was born to do. It’s what I want to do till the day I die. … I want to keep going with the series, but I also have some projects that are in the works and some projects that I’m writing right now before the strike may or may not happen, so there’s stuff I’m finishing up.
I want to work in all medium. I want to be able to carry a show and have a movie come out. One day I want to do Broadway. One day I want to write a novel. I want to keep experimenting with the way in which I can tell stories. I want to make big movies. I want to make small movies. I want to do it all.
How do you feel about creating roles for African-American talent?
It’s really exciting because I think that we push each other. I don’t feel a sense of competition with Barry Jenkins or Ryan Coogler or Ava [DuVernay], but when I see their work, I’m so inspired by it that it pushes me to be a better filmmaker. There’s just something really unique about this moment that’s not lost on me. I don’t know if this is how directors felt in the early ’90s when black was en vogue at that time, but I just feel like we’re about to do some really special things in the culture as we come of age and keep working.
To me it’s really exciting, and I love that there is an appetite for all the different versions of black people. Like the fact that me and Issa [Rae] and Donald Glover have shows about young black people on the air and couldn’t be more different is really, really cool. Because for the first time, it’s not like, ‘That’s the young black show. That’s the adult black show. That’s the black sitcom, and that’s the black drama. Good night.’