Even in this age of “woke TV,” Dear White People, Justin Simien’s satirical exploration of race and identity at a fictional and predominantly white Ivy League university, stands out from the pack. While adapted from his 2014 Sundance hit flick, the series — which centers on Logan Browning’s fiery performance as a student, activist, and DJ— felt as timely as ever when it premiered in April. Simien still has a lot more on his mind, of course, including plans for (fingers crossed) season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Dear White People hit Netflix two months ago. How do you feel about the first season now that it’s been out?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: I hate it! [Laughs] No, I’m so proud of it. The thing about Netflix, because it’s not scheduled television and it all just comes out, is that it’s incredible seeing people discover it over and over and over again. It’s incredibly gratifying because in the [writers’] room — before we knew we were going to be in the age of Trump — we were following very closely just what was going on in America and how racism was becoming mainstream again. It felt like we just spoke to these times before we even knew we would be in them.
Did the current state of race relations fuel your desire to turn the movie into a TV show?
For me, it was really character first. I’ve been working on a version of Dear White People, no lie, since 2005. Over the years there have been just so many iterations of it, so many scenes and stories and characters that were just hanging out in a vault in the back of my mind. And after going on a college tour for the movie, I was just about to burst with even more stories about people navigating a world in which things aren’t a meritocracy, things aren’t fair.
What ideas are you hoping to explore in a second season?
I think we’re in an era of mass misinformation. It’s not just so-called fake news but also in terms of American history. The reason we can’t really talk about racism and the reason a black person can’t say something like “white supremacy” without somebody taking it personally is because none of us really have the same sort of basic understanding of America’s history and how we got here. We’re actively misinformed since entering the school system about this country being a meritocracy and [the idea that] if you just put in the work, you’ll get something out of it — and onward to this idea of “making America great again.” When exactly was America great, and for whom?
This idea of a meritocracy is interesting and reminds me of something my friend pointed about Dear White People: It’s ironic that it’s about these black radicals developing their revolutionary ideas while attending an Ivy League school, an ivory tower. Was that intentional?
Obviously, not all of them are radicals, but specifically with Sam and Reggie, I would say that yes. Not only is it intentional, but I think it kind of brings up one of those pat answers to racism, which is, “How can you complain about racism when we have a black president or if you personally are doing well in your life?” The thing is, even though on the surface it might seem as if equality has been achieved in some way, if you dig just a little bit deeper you realize there are all kinds of inconsistencies. Yes, we had a black president, but of all of the presidents we had, what percentage of them have been black, and in general, what did I have to do to get to this point in my career versus what my peers have had to do? When I talk about racism, I talk about it as a system of disadvantage; just because some people overcome that system by either luck or hard work or whatever, that doesn’t mean the system doesn’t exist. From the [movie’s] inception, I thought it would be really interesting to set it at a place where the assumption is everyone is privileged, everyone is sort of hyper-smart — it’s a bunch of sharks in a shark tank, and there aren’t any guppies. Even in a world like that where everyone is supposedly “at the same level,” there are these things that make their lives very different.
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One of the things I wanted to do with episode 5 — because a lot of us are in this space where we are trying to take up the cause, fight for what we believe in, and make change in this country, but not all of us have had that direct experience — is show what happens to all of us at that one point when these things that we say and think about racism stop being theoretical and we actually experience them and how that sort of leaves us. It’s not easy sometimes to pick up a megaphone and fight for your rights when you’ve actually been a victim in a very clear and traumatizing way. I think a lot of the criticism that Sam gets from a lot of the characters in the show is just that: “You talk all this game, but really what do you know? What experiences have you had?” I don’t know that that is an unfair criticism for her. This is one of the many different sides of the angles that I just enjoyed exploring in this. I root for Sam, but at the same time, she’s barely 20-years-old and her form of activism is still embryonic. I think a lot of us who are just now becoming activists can relate to that.
Season 1, among other things, is about these characters finding their voice and identity. So, I’m curious, how did that process play out for you in your own life?
For me, it [was] acknowledging that I have a role to play in society but knowing that’s not all there is to me. So yes, I consider myself an activist. Yes, I consider myself an artist. Yes, when I sit down at my computer I’m sort of trying to write things that change my life personally and lead me to the path of discovery. But, I’m also a Buddhist and I also really love my cats and my boyfriend. There’s other stuff to me. I think finding a balance and being able to cultivate both has been a big help. I’ve been a meditator for a while and a chanter. That’s really, really helped me hone in on what else it is I’ve got going on besides just the outward role that I play.
Also, I think at the end of the day, this is my dream. I’ve wanted to tell stories visually since I was a kid and I know that so deeply that even when I am working and I am sort of stuck playing the part of Justin The Guy Who’s Going Out to Talk About Race at a Certain Panel or Justin the Director Dealing With All the Crew and Coordinating a Set, it is a joy and it is part of who I am genuinely. It’s not just an act that I have to play. It’s something that I’ve just been very clear about wanting for so long. I think trying to find a balance between what’s important and what’s just stupid and silly and just gives me my life. Who is it that I just want to sit around and chat with about nothing for an hour? Knowing that I have those people around and knowing I have those experiences at my fingertips as well as my art and as well as my job definitely helps a lot — not getting caught up in things.
Thanks to the Scandal and Iyanla: Fix My Life spoofs on the show, it’s clear you love pop culture. Who do you want to have cameos in season 2?
Iyanla [Vanzant]! I want Dereca [Dear White People’s fictional version of Iyanla] to be on Iyanla’s show in some alternate reality. I’d love to have Tyler Perry. I’d love to have the cast from the movie. But Iyanla is at the top of my list because, personally, I’ve always wanted her to fix my life. I’m just obsessed with her.
The entire first season is available on Netflix right now.