Image Source: Netflix
When Netflix released its date announcement for the TV adaptation of the 2014 film Dear White People, the 30-second clip was immediately met with a boycott by white Twitter users who deemed it "racist" and "anti-white." For Justin Simien — who wrote and directed the movie, as well as created the upcoming TV series — it only served as a reminder that the story he's telling is more important than ever.
"This is not my first rodeo," he told POPSUGAR and a group of other journalists during an interview in February. "I went through this with the movie. . . . I'll say this: the boycott is maybe a dozen people, just to keep it real. While there is clearly a campaign to 'dislike' the trailer on YouTube, we got more views than any other date announcement in Netflix history for a new series, by a lot. Frankly, it's kind of helping me promote the show. It's also revealing a really ugly side of the country that I think proves why the show needs to be here."
In 2017, calling what's happening in America "really ugly" is an understatement. Consider the fact Dear White People — which Simien notes he originally wrote as "straight-up satire" — is now more relevant than it was when the movie premiered three years ago. "It's disheartening sometimes to be called a n*gger on the internet," Simien continued. "It's never not hit me some kind of way. But these people existed already, so to already have something special that speaks to this time in the country, I feel like I'm doing something right, to be honest."
Netflix's Dear White People begins directly after the events of the film — a group of white students throw a blackface party that is stopped by a group of black students, which subsequently divides the campus and brings racial tension to the forefront of student conversation. Sam (Logan Browning taking over for original actress Tessa Thompson) starts a divisive college radio show, Dear White People, while another student, Reggie (Marque Richardson), prepares the Black Student Union for action. Lionel (DeRon Horton in for Tyler James Williams), a quiet kid exploring his sexuality, takes action through his articles in the student newspaper, as Troy (Brandon P. Bell) attempts to unify everyone on campus. They all have very different ways of dealing with the fallout from the blackface party, but all are realistic reactions that Simien finally got a chance to explore.
Although the 2014 indie turned out to be a sleeper hit, there are some characters who come off as shallow sketches rather than full-blown portraits in the film. Simien is the first to admit this, saying that there's only so much you can do with an ensemble cast in an hour and 45 minutes. Thankfully, Netflix's reincarnation offered him a chance to give his beloved characters their due with 30-minute-long episodes devoted to the sole perspective of one character, which fleshes them out in a way the movie never could. Prepare yourself, because the world that's been simmering in Simien's brain for years is finally getting unleashed in all of its unflinchingly honest, brutally funny glory.
"I wrote this movie over the course of many years, and it started with a 200-plus-page screenplay, with way too many characters and way too many storylines," he said. "I had to put those away in a vault, and I finally got to unlock the vault. Even characters that we did see in the movie, like Coco and Lionel and even Troy — who maybe didn't get as much depth as Sam did in the film — I was excited to go deeper into those characters, too. One of the things I wanted to do with the film was put characters out there that I felt were underrepresented, and the sort of queer black experience that Lionel goes through, a lot of folks really enjoyed that. A lot of folks really wished it went deeper, and I wished it went deeper, too. . . . There was a lot of satisfaction in finally getting it out of my subconscious and putting it on the page."
For Browning — who joined Simien and costar Brandon P. Bell for our interview — taking over the role of Sam from Tessa Thompson, essentially reinventing the character, was a welcome challenge. "Half the campus is still rooting for her, half the campus is still throwing tomatoes at her, and she's still having sex behind closed doors. That's all the same, but I think what is different is how I'm naturally going to portray the character," she revealed. "One of the biggest differences for Sam is that five years ago, when Trayvon Martin was murdered, that was a catalyst and changed all of us forever. Sam now has that as a part of her. Justin mentioned that he first wrote the film while Bush was in office, so to think he's been through now three presidents. . . . Even though it's picking up where the movie left off, Sam exists in a different time."
Bell reprises his role as Troy, the upstanding son of the college Dean, who finds himself pulled in two directions: reunite the campus, or speak out on issues you believe in. Like Browning, the 32-year-old actor drew from real-world experiences to play Troy, including a time he was called a racial slur while walking on his own campus years ago. "You're like, 'Wow, that really just happened.' It's not something that you just read about in history books, and not something you're parents or relative who's older than you told you about; it's something that happens today and continues to happen," he said. "It always hits close to home. I feel like anyone who's attended any college — whether black, private, or predominantly white — has experienced several things that Justin covers throughout the series for sure."
It's exactly the kind of moments like the ones Bell and countless other young people of color face daily that makes the existence of a show like Dear White People so necessary. These are stories that need to be told, especially for audiences in need of representation. "I want folks to feel that they can relate to the main characters in the show, black young people, and get a chance to see themselves in something. It's a profound experience," Simien said. "Seeing Moonlight as a gay black man, I saw scenes that I never, ever thought I'd see in a movie. That's such an affirmation."
For many black audiences, they have no choice but to see themselves in white characters due to the glaring lack of black characters in movies and TV. Simien is not only changing that, but hopes that viewers who might not think they can connect to his characters will be surprised. "Ain't no black Indiana Jones running around; you gotta see yourself in Indiana Jones," he explained. "But there is something so rich about getting to see yourself in a person who, on the surface, you don't think you can relate to. That's my favorite part about movies. I talk about Blue Is the Warmest Color a lot. I love that movie, but I'm not a lesbian, I'm not French, I'm not a woman, I'm not white. But I saw so much of myself in that film. There's just nothing like that, so that's what I hope people get. I hope people see themselves and that they're surprised to see themselves."
This message also extends to the show's biggest detractors, the ones who decided they needed to boycott the "white genocide" Dear White People is supposedly supporting. "I like to point this out that all of the trolls and the vitriol actually have a lot to relate to in this show," Simien added. "The feeling that you're unheard, this feeling that you have to make a fuss to get people to hear you or that no one is paying attention to your message. Guess what? That's what the show's about. I think that's just a part of the human condition. It doesn't matter who's in office or what laws have been passed. . . . This show continues to speak to whatever era it's in, because we're trying to get at a truth, a core truth, for these characters. It's not a political show; it's not about espousing political theory or telling white people how to feel. It's about characters who are struggling with something that is universal."
And who can't relate to that? Watch Dear White People when it hits Netflix on April 28.