'It got very emotional, very tense on the set,' says Justin Simien about filming the climactic scene in episode 5, which was directed by Barry Jenkins
Justin Simien is very surprised by the warm reception Dear White People has received.
“I was kind of bracing myself for a lot more trolling, to be honest,” the Dear White People creator — clearly remembering the backlash and boycott threats that the trailer elicited when it was released in February — tells EW. “I’m a little disappointed.”
Based on his 2014 satirical film of the same name, Dear White People follows the black students at a fictional Ivy League college that’s been rocked by a recent scandal: a blackface party thrown in response to Samantha White’s (Logan Browning) eponymous radio show. The 10-episode first season dives into the aftermath and examines how the students juggle staying woke about systemic racism while also, you know, just living.
A week after the first season hit Netflix, EW spoke to Simien about the powerful fifth episode directed by Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins and what he has planned for season — if Netflix commissions another season.
What He Did and Didn’t Intend to Do With Dear White People
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you intend with the show? I mean, it can be interpreted in many ways.
JUSTIN SIMIEN: Well, my main goal was that I wanted people to feel the humanity of these characters. Whatever you came into the show with, whatever your knee-jerk reaction might have been to the title, I wanted you to be able to imprint upon these characters who represent people who are not normally featured in narratives. So, people who look and feel like CoCo and Sam and Lionel and Troy and Reggie, I wanted them to see themselves. But I also wanted people who didn’t necessarily have those specific experiences to see themselves in these characters as well.
There’s this question of humanity, trying to put characters of color on screen that are more than just intersections of two or three things. They’re human beings. They’re fully fleshed out, hypocritical, contradictory, lovely, awful human beings. If the show is just revolving around one of the people, so many people are left out of that narrative. So many people are left out of that dialogue. I’m not going to please all people, but that’s the one thing about black narratives: We get so few of them that it can be disappointing when we don’t get to see ourselves in the new thing. So I wanted to pour as much of that as I could, especially after being on the road with the film. All of the stories I collected, I wanted those voice to be in this narrative from jump.
My secondary goal, of course, was to start conversations about what’s happening in the fabric of these kids’ lives, because it’s definitely very representative of where I think we are as a country right now. I think one of the cool things is to really see that happening in real time — because it’s Netflix, all of the episodes are out there — and just seeing people latch onto certain story lines and certain characters and certain moments and certain lines and sort of like they’re getting it like we were hoping they would. It’s just a dream come true.
Watching the show, I was reminded of how Donald Glover said he wanted Atlanta to show people they didn’t know everything about black culture. I think there’s a tendency to view us as a monolith, but it seems like this show, too, was very focused on revealing the diversity within the population.
Yeah, absolutely. I can’t even say that my goal was to teach people anything. I know it’s Dear White People, and you can imprint all kinds of concessions about what the show might be about on the title, but my goal was never to, like, educate white people. My goal was always to create characters that you can relate to and fall in love with. If I can do that as a storyteller, then I can do anything because once you care, you’ll follow them wherever they go and the things that threaten them suddenly threaten you, and the things that they love suddenly you’re open to. For me, it was all about story and all about character first, and less about dogma and ideology. To me, that’s the opposite of what the show is about.
Filming Episode 5 Was Very Difficult
When you were writing the fifth episode — where a campus security guard pulls a gun on Reggie (Marque Richardson) at a party — did you already have Barry Jenkins in mind to direct?
Yeah, kind of. Here’s the thing: I come from a filmmaking background, so this concept of sort of overseeing a television show but not directing was in general not weird, but I had to get used what that felt like. My initial instinct was, I want to direct as much of this as possible. But the logistics of making of TV, that’s just not possible.
Episode 5 is an amalgamation of two things: It’s part of a scene that I really loved from the feature that got cut long before we even got into production, but it always stuck in my head, and the fact that I knew in episode 5 I wanted a tonal shift that sort of matched the experience of being a young black person in the country — to be going about your day and then all of a sudden you get punched in the gut by the reality of being black in this country. I knew I needed to do that in the middle of the season.
When we came together and we started putting the episode together, I called it a yellow brick road episode because the plot really meanders until you get to the very end. For me, Barry was the first director that I really kind of saw that walk-and-talk, mumble-coursing but with black people. I’ve always been a fan of Barry’s, and we got to meet in person and I got to check out Moonlight — and obviously was obsessed with it. By the time we got into the writers’ room, I knew that either I was going to direct the episode or Barry Jenkins was. And, I very much wanted Barry Jenkins to direct an episode of the show. So, the rest was timing and fate and I just think it was the perfect hands for it to be in. I just think he did a great job.
Was the campus security guard pulling a gun on Reggie originally in the movie?
It wasn’t pulling a gun, but the idea was that it was a group of kids who — essentially they didn’t have names in the film by the time we got to production — were basically a group of the homies, basically Sam’s crew hanging out without her looking for fun. They go to these parties, get drunk, get high, they have a good time, but then they run into a situation where it’s clear that they can’t get away with the things that the white kids get away with in the same college. But it being a gun, specifically, that was closer to when the show was a reality. I remember very clearly having a conversation with Netflix right before we went into the writers’ room and making the passionate case as to why it had to be a gun in episode 5 and how irresponsible I thought it would be to not address this issue with a show called Dear White People about black life. We were all a little bit concerned and wanted to make sure the tonal shift happened and worked, and we figured it out. But the gun thing certainly came later. The reality of unarmed black kids getting shot by cops, that hadn’t gone viral yet in the culture when I was still writing the movie. It was obviously something I knew happened, but it sort of being a talking point in a news item all the time, that wasn’t happening really then. So, what I was thinking had to adapt to where we are culturally now.
I watched that episode at my desk at work and it was a gut punch, especially since I am a black man…
I mean, we all felt that. I gotta tell you, shooting that episode — want to talk about a gut punch? First of all, we kind of felt like a family from the beginning, but that was the night that really bonded us all, because it was a very emotional night, especially shooting the gun scene take after take. It got very emotional, very tense on the set. We really had to sort of take breaks just so people could come down from it, because, yes, they’re performers and we’re making a TV show, but it was so real and it was so vivid for all us. Just to see the cast take care of each other the way they did and for me to sort of feel kind of like a father figure. I mean, I’m 33 years old and I’m turning 34 on Sunday, so I can’t say I have a lot of experience with it. And [EP] Yvette Lee Bowser is sort of our mama bear. We just had to bond because it was very difficult to go some place that tender take after take after take.
He Has Already Started Thinking About Season 2
Did you know the season would end with Troy [Brandon P. Bell] being arrested when you started writing the season?
I knew that there were going to be several students in contention over what to do, what was happening on campus. The details of who specifically was going to sort of be the Mookie [from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing], that we debated a lot. I feel like in season 1 I have to get all of my Spike Lee references out of the way and having a kind of Mookie moment, that was something I knew I wanted to early on. Credit to the writers, a couple of them made a very passionate case for why it should be Troy, and I agree. We just sort of followed that instinct down the rabbit hole and ended up where we ended up. Plot-wise, I knew the last episode was going to be an all-stars episode. That was the one where I was going to give permission to the show to bounce between different points-of-view in the same episode. Yeah, but who was going to be involved in that crescendo and on what side, we stayed debating that quite a bit into production before we landed on it being Troy.
The season ends with Troy being taken away in handcuffs. How will that experience affect him in the second season (if there is one)?
Well, you’ll just have to wait and see, sir. I can’t give it all away. But we certainly thought a lot about who Troy has been trying to be for most of the first season, and he clearly can’t do that again. That didn’t work for him in any way. I mean, he clearly snapped. So what do you do now when your identity has literally shattered like glass around you in that situation? That’s definitely the question we’re going to go into in season 2 with in regards to Troy. In the same way that we meet Sam with this fully-formed idea of herself, you know, Troy is so far behind figuring out what that is for himself, and I think in a lot of ways, he’s closer to where Lionel begins season 1 than anybody. I think that’s an interesting thing to explore.
How do you plan on exploring the theme of struggling to stay woke while also having a life further? What other topics and themes to do you hope to tackle in season 2?
Well, I’ll say that the Trump era has inspired a lot in terms of what I’d like to discuss in the second season. I definitely want to go deeper into the characters that we’ve established, but also go deeper into characters that we haven’t gotten to know as well — like we clearly need a deeper dive into what’s going on with Joelle [Ashley Blaine Featherson]. She’s such a popular character and she also kind of represents all of us. But, I think the ramifications of the kind of failed attempt to protest what’s going on at school — everyone being in the aftermath of that failed attempt — that’s certainly a point of entry for me, because how many times have we rallied together to fight something and we’re still in the same place we were yesterday? How do you keep on going after you’ve gone to the women’s march and this dude is still in office? That pervasive feeling of, what is it all for, is certainly one that I think the characters are going to be dealing with in season 2.