Justin Simien also reveals one of season 2's hidden secrets
Warning: This post contains spoilers from Dear White People season 2. Read at your own risk!
And thus the longest semester has finally ended!
In season 2 of Netflix’s Dear White People, vocal campus activist Samantha White (Logan Browning) had her hands full with a number of problems: an anonymous alt-right online troll who turned out to be Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff), the former editor of the campus newspaper; the fallout of her breakup with Gabe (John Patrick Amedori); and working with Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton) to investigate the possible existence of a powerful black secret society on campus.
In the end, Sam and Lionel’s quest to find this secret society that could possibly help them deal with the tumult on campus led them to a clock tower, where they came face-to-face with none other than Giancarlo Esposito, the show’s narrator. This big reveal raises a lot of questions about the future of show, and so we turned to creator Justin Simien for some answers. Below, EW chats with Simien about the season’s big twists, the exceptionally directed eighth episode, and some of the season’s hidden secrets. (For more information on season 2’s surprise cameos, click here).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The episode that really sticks out in my mind is episode 8, which you directed. The standout moment is the single take argument. Why did you decide you wanted to film that entire argument as a single take?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: That episode was fun to do. I come from a theatre background and Jack Moore comes a theatre background. I love that Paddy Chayefsky-Sidney Lumet kind of style where the camera angles and what you do with the camera is all about the story you’re telling. It’s not coverage, it’s about what’s happening in the scene between these two people. Honestly, it just felt like the right way to shoot that moment. They’re kind of in their own silos for most of the episode, and when it explodes and they finally say all of the things they’ve wanted say to each other, I didn’t want to cut. I wanted you to feel it and let the performance untouched do the work.
Their argument touches on issues like being a good white ally and how responsible Sam is for the current tumult on campus. What do you hope was conveyed by their argument?
That they’re both right, and they’re both wrong, and these things are very difficult to talk about, and if we stay in this context of needing to be right all the time, we don’t get anywhere. We always come to it from a character place, and these are two characters who have been pretending for the bulk of the season that they don’t need to talk to each other and that they’re over it. But of course the secret that they’re keeping from each other and themselves is that they have a lot that they need to talk about. In a lot of ways, Sam and Gabe are us as a nation right now trying to talk about race and trying to grapple with these issues. But if you’re just listening so you can win the argument, it doesn’t matter at a certain point who’s right. I just wanted to voice [the anger on both sides] as honestly as possible without moralizing it. It was a character journey, so I do think that Gabe sort of hears what she’s saying, but then she also hears what he’s saying and it’s only when they stop needing to be right that they can actually come together.
How did you decide that Silvio would be the one behind the alt-right Twitter account that was attacking Sam?
We talked about a lot of people it could be. We talked about introducing a new character, but it just felt more interesting and real. The show is constantly asking the audience, “are you sure you think you know this person?” Again, this season is very focused on the secrets the university is keeping from the students, i.e. what America is keeping from its citizens, [and] it’s about the secrets they’re keeping from each other We’re always playing with this idea that you can’t judge a person at first blush and you don’t really know who is behind these things. I also never want to be accused of creating a kind of straw man or cardboard white villain because I think the issues are more complicated than that. It just being one of the white characters felt stupid when I felt like we could say something more interesting if it was Silvio. Also when you look back at season 1, it kind of all tracks. We’ve always written Silvio as a person who is holding a lot close to the chest. When you go back and watch it again, you feel like it’s been Silvio the whole time.
It was weird watching that reveal happen on the show and then watching Kanye West’s TMZ interview and tweetstorm…
It’s crazy! I was joking about this because there are so many instances where we write something that is completely fictional but just sort of reflects the stuff that we are looking at. Then by the time the show comes out, it happens. Everything from the fact that the original “Jesus Walks,” not Kanye’s version, is the song at the end of the first episode, to the fact that we basically had a Candace Owens character before any of us knew who Candace Owens was is a little distressing because it’s always hard to watch your comedy become the sobering drama, but it’s also a bit reassuring that we are hitting the target [and] in our fictional, hyper-reality way, speaking to something that is true and actually a real phenomenon that needs to be unpacked. I think the Kanye of it all is something we need to unpack. I don’t think we need to do it on Twitter, by the way [laughs]. I think as a nation we need to unpack what happened with him because it’s happening to a lot of people. He might be the most prominent one, but 10 percent of black people voted for Trump. Who are those people? That’s a thing we need to get into at some point.
Dear White People hasn’t been officially renewed for a third season, but assuming it returns, do you plan on tackling who was in that 10 percent?
I am very interested in how these bigger thematic issues affect people on a personal level, so I would absolutely continue with that. But I also think that technically, we are at the end of this school year finally. From the movie to the first season to the second season, we’re at the end of the fall semester. So, I’m really curious to see what happens in the spring, to see what happens with a little bit of distance from these characters and sort of allow them to absorb what just happened to them. There’s just a whole host of topics that are still on the table from seasons 1 and 2, even stuff that didn’t make the movie I’m dying to dive into. Some of it I really take a moment to really lean into the reaction and the conversation that’s happening, which informs what I want to talk about, I do a lot of research, and we have a sense of where we want to go with the characters, but yeah, I just let that stew for a bit. Then when we get in the room, we start to unpack it.
When I spoke to Logan last week, she said you had this color scheme for the season that’s tied to a painting in the season finale [see below]. Would you mind breaking that color scheme down?
One of the fun parts about directing is coming up with subconscious things that the visuals are telling you when you aren’t really thinking about it. Often you don’t really get to do that through a series. Often, it’s episode to episode. But I really wanted to tell a very specific color story this season.
The reason I arrived at these colors is because in all my research, it just felt like all these issues stem from how poorly we dealt with recovering from slavery. We sort of left these people behind and continued to kick them over the generations and now we’re expected to sort of be where everybody else is at. The more and more I kept digging, I kept coming across these paintings with the same color schemes. This one in particular, which was just along the backstage entrance when Sam goes to see Rikki, was this poster that was trying to recruit black soldiers to join the Civil War. When you look at the picture, it tells you everything about this country and everything about what this country was built on. Red, white, and blue, of course the colors of the American flag, are very prominent. The tallest things in the picture are white, this white tent and a white man. All of the black men are really short. They’re sort of made to look a lot smaller and diminutive next to whiteness, and of course their skin is brown, which is the same color of the soil, and they’re all fighting over these green crops that produce gold. It’s all economic. Red, white, and blue in service of keeping the brown working class growing crops, making money, and making gold. It just felt like that’s literally the illness. That’s what all of these symptoms are stemming from — an economic decision made after the abolition of slavery. So, I wanted to take those colors and extrapolate them and sort of give you subtle cues when you were seeing somebody caught up in the world of Winchester; when you were seeing somebody becoming their authentic self; when you would see somebody encounter true wealth and the sort of secret gold that America sort of hoards for certain people. I’m not going to breakdown what each color means, but I’ll say that I wanted to have a very specific and subconscious statement that represented what I could feel is the route of a lot of these issues. And it’s just fun. It’s fun to have to have a color story.
In the season finale, Giancarlo Esposito, the show’s narrator, reveals himself to Sam and Lionel, and appears to be a member of this secret society of black people on campus. Where did the idea to weave this secret society come from?
It came from really me examining my own backlash and seeing how important secrets and anonymity has kind of always been keeping racism in place, and sort of the systemic erasure of our history and what actually happened in the past. Literally from the abolition of slavery, you see these underground societies forming, and a lot of them are race based, and a lot of them are either still functioning in America or they have like a pathological legacy that is basically functioning in America. The whole season is about the things that have sort of been erased and removed. It just felt like an interesting thing to explore because we are at an Ivy League and they have such a rich secret society culture, but also again, it just felt like the story of America.
Even our Civil Rights movement, there’s a public face and there’s a private face, too, that was planning all of these things in the ’60s. I also felt like we were in this resist kind of place where it was just like, let’s just voice our opinions loudly and that’s enough. I think that’s a really important thing to do, but there’s also a persist component, and in order to persist you kind of have to go underground and you have to be secretive and you have to plan and you can’t [constantly] react. You kind of have to do what they’ve been doing. I thought that’d be an interesting thing to think about hypothetically. Now whether or not they’re real and whether or not Giancarlo has anything to do with that, I won’t say, but I will say I was salivating at the thought of [putting] the narrator in the narrative. It probably comes from seeing Into the Woods at such a young age. I just love playing with the form. From the moment you hear the narrator, he’s telling you he’s a narrator that was hired by the writer to explain things. There was something cheeky about that that gets me excited.
Going back to season 1, did you know you wanted to introduce him into the story in some way, or did that come up when you were writing season 2?
It really came up during season 1 that I didn’t want to keep using the narrator in the same way. I didn’t want it to become cute or formulaic. I wanted to either take it further or do something else with it. So this was a really just an organic extension of those conversations.