'Iyanla Vanzant is like somebody that's like near-deity for me,' says Justin Simien.
Justin Simien is very interested in how pop culture affects the black activist characters at the center of his new Netflix series Dear White People. That explains both the pop culture reference-heavy, rapid-fire dialogue and, more importantly, two very hilarious television parodies that we see throughout the first season.
The first is called Defamation, an uproarious and loving send-up of ABC’s Scandal that’s introduced in the series premiere. The parody begins with Defamation‘s Olivia Pope-like character barging into the Oval Office to confront the President because he pinched her behind at the White House Correspondents Dinner. It plays out exactly like a scene from early Scandal — with the Olivia character telling the Fitz stand-in to stop acting like a “bitch baby” and to do his job — before devolving into something a bit more ridiculous when the President orders her to fellate him right there on the eagle of the office.
“Yes, Mr. President,” she says, before dropping to her knees. Then, they’re interrupted by her father storming into the room, and the scene ends with her simply saying, “Daddy?” (a clear nod to Scandal‘s season 2 finale). (We later learn that’s actually a clone of her father).
“What I’m glad about is that it can be perceived as a little shady, but it does have a love in it, too,” Simien tells EW. “I hope they take it with the love that it was intended.”
In the premiere, we learn that the students living at Armstrong Parker, this fictional Ivy League college’s predominantly black dormitory, gather together every Wednesday night to watch Defamation and yell at the screen.”I genuinely love that we get together for these epic viewing parties where we talk to the screen. That’s a part of a young black person’s life,” Simien tells EW, explaining part of the reasoning behind the
“I genuinely love that we get together for these epic viewing parties where we talk to the screen. That’s a part of a young black person’s life,” Simien tells EW, explaining part of the reasoning behind the Defamation parody. “I think what was cool is that I’m seeing a lot of tweets from people saying, ‘I just feel so seen by that scene because it’s me. That’s what I do on Thursday nights.’ That’s really cool.”
However, Defamation isn’t the season’s only parody. In episode 5, Reggie (Marque Richardson) is briefly seen watching Dereca: Set Me Straight, which is a riff on OWN’s Iyanla: Fix My Life. Simien admits that this addition isn’t nearly as thematically relevant as Defamation — which represents the students’ welcome distraction from the systemic racism on campus they’re fighting against — and is more representative of his love for life guru Iyanal Vanzant and his interest in pop culture.
“Whenever I’m doing a pass on one of the scripts, I always kind of insert [something], because there’s something about the fact that these characters are, in some ways, defined by the culture that they’re surrounded by. I think that’s why I keep observing through their eyes the things that captivate me as a young black person,” says Simien.
He adds: “Iyanla Vanzant is like somebody that’s near-deity for me. It’s true. She is my favorite personality that I haven’t met yet, but at the same time, it’s a funny show. There are moments where you laugh because it’s so outrageous and I just wanted to populate the world with all of those little idiosyncrasies where on its surface, it’s just kind of funny, but maybe later you’ll be figure out what that reference is about. Some of that is intentional and some of it I can’t help myself.”
If Netflix renews Dear White People for season 2, you can definitely expect to see more of Defamation. “I definitely feel like we need to keep going with Defamation. I think that was definitely a fan favorite,” says Simien.