When Netflix first announced Justin Simien would adapt his thoughtful and stylish satire, Dear White People, for the streaming service, the reactions were mixed, to say the least. Fans of his 2014 film looked forward to a more extensive discussion of race, while some (white) people on the so-called “alt-right” called for a boycott on the new series, ostensibly for having the gall to want to include Caucasian folks in the conversation.
Disingenuous objections aside, Dear White People debuted in 2017 to critical acclaim, and was quickly renewed for a second season, which drops on Netflix today. The new episodes retain the same urgency and pointed commentary, while also making room for the characters, including astute Sam (Logan Browning) and tenacious Lionel (DeRon Horton), to deepen relationships old and new. But while there are a lot of relatable elements, including embracing your sexuality, there are conversations being had on Dear White People that can only be found in a handful of other places on TV. The A.V. Club spoke with Simien about the importance of keeping up those difficult conversations, that surprising cameo in the extraordinary finale, and whether white people have chilled out about the show’s title.
The A.V. Club: Season two picks up right after the protests and dorm fire, and it definitely deepens the conversation on race. But it also feels like everyone is just having more fun, which is important, right? You have to have bread and roses.
Justin Simien: [Laughs.] Definitely—they get laid a lot more this season, that’s for sure. Which, depending on what you watch TV for, may or may not entice you. I certainly felt like the training wheels were off. I think that first season, you’re so proud of it. But with the first season, there’s always stuff that you learn and that you do for the first time that I just wanted everything to be taken up a notch. I wanted every story to feel as impactful to someone as episode five felt to everyone last season. When we were in these characters’ point of views for their episodes, I wanted more. I just wanted deeper, more human, more exciting stories to come out. I didn’t want you to feel like you were just watching a warmed-up version of season one that somehow lost its bite or urgency. I think the times are more urgent, and it requires the show to reflect that.
AVC: Sam [Logan Browning] and Coco [Antoinette Robinson] in particular take on a lot this season. Their relationship is complicated—it’s adversarial but respectful, and as we see later in the season, actually very supportive. How does having such an inclusive writers room shape their shared story?
JS: Their friendship is such an important part of the larger story. I remember when we were first putting the room together and I was telling the team that, obviously, this is my baby, but I also recognize there’s a limit to what I can possibly know about the experience. It would be so irresponsible to have a show where so many girls are connecting to Sam and so many girls are connecting to Coco and I knew so many girls would connect to Joelle. It would be so irresponsible to have a room full of guys or black guys, white guys, whatever. That would be a mistake, and it was important for me to put together a team of rivals in that room, people who I think certainly were with me on the journey of what the show means, but in terms of issues and experiences, there’s a diversity there that is beyond skin color. It’s age diversity. It’s generational. It’s, of course, race, sexuality. There’s so many different intersections in that writers room and within our department heads that I knew I was going to get more story and a more complete story than if I just surrounded myself with people who were just like me. And as I continue in this career, we’ll keep doing that on a bigger scale. They were in a room with seven people, including myself in the share room. So it’s a small room, but I think we did a really good job with getting a lot of different voices in there.
AVC: Dear White People is obviously much more pointed and political than any other college drama, but how do you think it fits in with other shows that are aimed at a similar age group, or that feature characters who are the same age, in college, etc.?
JS: The thing is, I don’t really see it as a college show. It does take place in college, but in the same way that Election takes place at a high school. It’s sort of purposely using this microcosm that we all know more or less the rules to, so we don’t have to in-depth explain what high school is like to anybody. Most people kind of get that even if their high school wasn’t like the high school in Election or the high school in Fame, we sort of understand the basic workings. The same thing is true for workplace comedies or family comedies. The appeal is that you don’t have to explain the world from scratch.
I want everyone who watches the show to keep watching it, but I definitely make it to be something that can be experienced not just emotionally as you’re going through the show with the characters, but also intellectually because we are making some rather dark commentary about the human condition, but certainly the American human experience that I don’t know is happening on other so-called college shows. When I think of other shows, my mind goes to places like Silicon Valley, which is another satire, or it goes to Atlanta, or shows that are using perhaps familiar television motifs to tell some dark—sometimes sophisticated, if we can manage it—stories. My goal is always to go a bit deeper into the human condition than maybe you even expected when you first pressed play. That’s always my goal as a writer. But that said, I think there are people who enjoy it on the level of, they just want to watch these characters quip and hang out, and that’s fine, too. I don’t want to discourage anyone from watching the show.
AVC: The show is so thematically rich, but I’m not sure it gets enough credit for just how snappy the dialogue is. There’s a lot of very pointed statements being made, but everyone’s words also pop.
JS: I know! These are all versions of the characters. If they said what we realize we should have said the second we walked away, these guys actually know how to say it. Not all of them—Lionel doesn’t. Lionel’s sort of notorious for in no way doing or saying the right thing in the moment. But if we’re talking about Sam and Joelle, they definitely have a great back-and-forth.
I actually asked the cast to watch Network a few times, because it’s another satire that for whatever reason sits in the drama bin in a lot of DVD shops. But it’s actually a satire, and Paddy Chayefsky—the writer, who is one of the greatest writers ever—what is so intoxicating about his screenplays and particularly that one is that it’s so written, and yet the fact that we all know that it’s written somehow doesn’t distract from what it’s saying. It doesn’t make it feel less lifelike. It makes it feel just purposeful.
And I think the magic is that no matter what the characters are saying, there’s something in everything that they’re not saying or that they’d rather not say. So we always try. If the characters are particularly articulate and really going for it, usually it’s because we are weighting the scene in something else that is dramatically involving or there’s a subtext or there’s an elephant in the room.
AVC: How do you balance the more naturalistic elements—the rightful anger, the disappointment—with the more heightened ones?
JS: Well, Dear White People does take place in this kind of augmented reality. It takes place in a bit of heightened setting, and the reason for that is because I want to get it out of the way as soon as possible that this isn’t a real place. Winchester doesn’t exist. These characters are television versions of people, so that we can get over that hump and start to think of it more as an idea than just an actual place that I’ve somehow documented everyday reality of.
Winchester is a TV stand-in for America. And so the language is one of those little subconscious cues to let you know that, “Oh, I’m not watching something that’s meant to be sort of cinéma vérité or… it’s not mumblecore.” It is something that is going to require— It needs to put some pieces together at some point. Not in a pop quiz kind of way, but in a you’re going to have to do a little bit of work to figure out what exactly they’re doing and talking about. I always felt so alive and engaged with entertainment like that. So I wanted to take a hand at it.
AVC: When the show was first announced, there were people threatening to boycott Netflix. What has it been like promoting the new season, especially on the heels of Black Panther, another black-led cultural phenomenon?
JS: It’s been kind of similar to before. I think that the good news is that people found us and are quite excited to return when the show airs again. But I mean, there’s still people who are triggered by the title. I think the unfortunate thing is that for some people that’s just where the conversation ends, when the show has so much more to say. But I think there’s so much more to say about why a person would be so triggered when a black guy says something like, “Dear white people,” when Stuff White People Like has been a best-selling book by an author that probably made a lot more money than I did for my Dear White People, that nobody was really threatened by. I think the fact that there’s an assumption of threat is a very interesting thing in and of itself to unpack, which is why the reactions to the show Dear White People almost always end up in the show Dear White People.
But it’s exciting to know that at least there are more people who are allied with what’s happening in culture than were before. It’s exciting to know that there are more people who seem to be awoke to racial issues, to gender issues, to political things that I think could be asleep up until a certain time. So I’m hopeful. I really do hope the show gets some more attention this time because I think that it has a lot to offer the current cultural conversation and there are things that I don’t think are often brought up that really have to do specifically with the nature of history and education in this country that this season in particular, but the whole thing, is really obsessed with and that I hope finds its way into the zeitgeist. I think there’s some really important topics that we can only begin on a show like this. It’s always the hope that they start to resonate and continue out there in the culture, though.
AVC: This season, you’re really exploring a sense of accountability, especially in Sam’s story—what her obligations are, given her platform, but also the responsibility of those engaging with her, often on really vicious terms. What was the inspiration there?
JS: For me as a storyteller, it always comes down to intention, and it always comes down to the truth. At the end of the day, what is it about? And what are your intentions in what you’re saying and how deeply did you dig for the truth? For me, the answer to those three questions is “as much as possible.” I do a tremendous amount of research in general, but specific to each season, and there’s a real attempt among us and among a number of professionals involved in the show to really unpack it as completely as possible so that when we do put this thing out there into the world, of course there are going to be people who are not happy with something or feel some type of way about this or the other, but I can say we didn’t leave anything off the table. That to me is as much as you can ask or expect from an artist.
I think there’s a lot of folks out there who enjoy making TV but see it as kind of a job and that TV is just a pastime. But for me, stories have always been the same, and that’s always been the difference between us and other species—that we’re able to tell a story and organize people around a story. That story sometimes is called the U.S. Constitution, or it’s the story of currency, or it’s a religious story. But our ability to tell each other deep internal truths in a way that you’re going to get to see the world somewhat the way I see it, I think is our enduring power as a species. I mean not to be too highfalutin about it, but this is why I get up in the morning, is to be a part of that. And I take it as a tremendous responsibility, and if everyone is doing that, I don’t know that I get so caught up in what people are saying as long as their intention is clear and that what they’re after is the truth. I think that what is disappointing to me about a lot of the cultural dialogue is that there is no intention other than maybe to drive views or to get audiences to show up to sell advertising to, or that there’s no desire to actually find the truth, so much as there’s a desire to win an argument or get people upset. That is what I’m seeing so much of right now and that I find an abuse of our power and our responsibility as storytellers.
AVC: There was also a Dickensian element to Sam’s story—she kind of meets her double, who—shocker—is played by none other than Tessa Thompson, who originated the role. How did that come together?
JS: That was a dream come true. I was trying to get Tessa in the show from last season. I was trying to get the entire original cast, and we just all remained friends and talked about how fun and meta it would be to involve them again. Tyler [James Williams, who also starred in the original film] and I were literally just texting. I was like, “Oh my god. What if I wrote this for you?” And he’s like, “Oh my god. Let’s do it.” That’s really how these things came together.
But that scene in particular—between Logan and Tessa—was so, I mean I wrote it just sort of hoping we would get [Tessa] and hoping that we’d get to film that kind of a scene where even a person who we like and trust and are on the journey with has to confront some disturbing realities. Because we all have to do that at some point. We all have to do that when we take a turn closer to being an adult. You always have to examine something that you had become quite used to. And I just thought that was a really fun, entertaining, but powerful way to do it, and I’m just so happy that schedules and budgets aligned to do it.