'Dear White People' Embraces the Trump Era in Its Move to the Small Screen

Creator Justin Simien tells THR how his Sundance hit turned into a Netflix series.
Courtesy of Adam Rose/Netflix

The final day of filming Netflix's newest comedy, Dear White People, started out as a joyful day for the cast and crew. It was Nov. 8, 2016, and they expected by the end of the night they'd wrap filming as they celebrated the election of the first female president. Obviously, things went very differently.

"I think what was interesting, we were very keyed in to what was happening in the world in that writers room," creator Justin Simien tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I don't think that any of us really anticipated the Trump presidency, but we certainly understood the possibility of it and the kinds of people and the kinds of attitudes that were pushing it and profiting from it. That stuff was already in the culture."

Suddenly his forthcoming series, which was written during the Obama presidency and follows a group of black students at a predominantly white university and the racial politics they must navigate on a daily basis, would have a very different impact released under Trump — but Simien believes it could be an even bigger one.

"We definitely felt a change in the country that is still evident right now, and we just so happened to create a show that I think worked even better, frankly, now that he's in because I think a lot of people feel the urgency that I felt, that we felt about these topics," he says. "They feel it in a more visceral way than I think they did before." 

The 33-year-old filmmaker spoke to THR about his movie's transition to the small screen, how he was able to expand on the themes he introduced in the film, and his reaction to the boycotts some called for after the first trailer was released.

When did the idea to turn Dear White People into a TV series begin to form?

It was so organic. I had it in the back of my mind forever that these characters should end up on TV eventually. I really wanted to make the movie, but I also felt like gosh, I had so much that I didn't get to put in the movie over the years that just didn't work for the screenplay anymore. Characters had to be excised, storylines, conversations. I had this vault of material. Then, going on the road with the movie and being at every kind of college — a liberal arts college, large state schools, Ivy Leagues, [historically black colleges and universities] — and talking to kids and grad students and faculty members about the movie and about what goes on in their lives, I just had so many stories. I was busting at the seams.

I had it in the back of my head. That's what I do when I have an idea. I just start to put it together in the back of my head. I think it was a general or a very light meeting just to talk about what I might do with it as a TV show. I told them. From that point on, we were off to the races. It was, "This is a little bit more formed than we expected. Let's take it out." We did, and ended up on Netflix.

How do you feel about Netflix's binge model?

I made it to be binged. I wanted to take advantage of this new way of watching TV. My first dream for the movie was that it would be this big Robert Altman collection of short stories that all blended into one thing. That was just impractical, frankly, for a first production. With Netflix, I got to really do that. I really got to make it to be a show that you can watch in two or three sittings — or one, if one is so inclined.

It also feels very re-bingeable.

We put a lot of Easter eggs in the show so that when you watch it a second and third time, you're like, "These writers are ridiculous. They are foolish, and they are putting all sorts of crazy subliminal things in the background." We definitely intended it to be something that just gets better the more you watch.

It's interesting that you say the show was inspired by conversations you had, because the show feels very conversational in nature. It's not necessarily coming down on one side or another of an issue.

I felt like something as big and messy and triggering as race, there's no way to come at it, at least in a contemporary way, from one dogmatic point of view, because the forces that continue and perpetuate slavery in our culture, it's so hidden beneath layers and layers of denial and generations of people and really outdated stories. We really are disconnected from how we got here. In order to let everybody be in on the conversation, everyone has to feel like they're invited. You can't start at the beginning. That was really important to me. One of my favorite things is the Gabe episode [following the white boyfriend of a biracial student], where we get into his head about what it feels like to be the only white guy around a bunch of black kids, but he also recognizes that they are the only black kids in a white college. Just the contradictions and the layers of that experience, that to me is the stuff of life, the stuff of storytelling. That was absolutely on the forefront of our mind when we were writing the show.

You wrote the show during the Obama administration, but it's coming out during Donald Trump's presidency. When did you finish filming?

We wrapped on Nov. 8. We came into the studio elated. It's the last day. Everyone's giving presents to each other. Everyone's high-fiving, congratulating, and by the way, when we were all done, we get to have Hillary Clinton as a president. We get to have the first woman president. All these crazy Trump voters can shut the hell up, and we can move on with our lives. Of course, that's not how it worked out. I think what was interesting, we were very keyed in to what was happening in the world in that writers room. I don't think that any of us really anticipated the Trump presidency, but we certainly understood the possibility of it and the kinds of people and the kinds of attitudes that were pushing it and profiting from it. That stuff was already in the culture.

Leading up to his win, all of the trolling online increased a hundredfold. All of these racists came out of the woodwork, emboldened and out loud leading movements. All of that stuff was happening. He wasn't in office, but already you could see what was coming. Even if Hillary had won, we would still be in a mess right now. Those people wouldn't have gone anywhere. We definitely felt a change in the country that is still evident right now, and we just so happened to create a show that I think worked even better, frankly, now that he's in because I think a lot of people feel the urgency that I felt, that we felt about these topics. They feel it in a more visceral way than I think they did before.

It was really easy for a straight white guy to watch Fruitvale Station and love it and pat himself on the back, but ignore some of the more specific issues. Now, there's a clear line between American racism and global catastrophe. A lot of people are seeing that in a way that — I think black people have been losing our breath shouting out to people to wake up to this stuff. Finally, they see how it affects their lives. If there's anything good to come from it, it'd have to be that.

Do you want this series to be educational for people?

The short answer is no. I mean, I think it will be — I think like any good art that exposes things that are often not talked about in the culture tend to be educational, but I definitely don't want to give the impression that people should show up to this show for a history lesson or something. I think there's a lot of information and hopefully mind-expanding ideas that we can infuse into the series, but first and foremost, I want you to care about the characters. I want you to imprint yourselves upon them. I want you to be willing to follow them wherever they go on their journey of figuring out who they are. Because if I got you there, then when things happen to them or when they're discussing certain topics, then all of a sudden those things matter to you. They're vital to you because they're hooked into this character and what happens to them.

And what were your feelings about the boycott some people called for after the date announcement trailer came out?

There were a lot. Look, it was clearly an attempt to use this show to rally up the troops and make all of these crazy statements. David Duke was doing videos about it, and Sarah Palin wrote this article. Everyone was using it, I think, to enforce their particular brand. It was a slow news week. At that particular day, I think the trolls just really had nothing else to attack. I think it really backfired, because it really exploded the coverage on the date announcement. This became a national news story. All of a sudden, people who have maybe never heard of the show not only heard of the show, but knew when it was coming out, watched the official trailer. You could feel it in the comments section, of people realizing what it actually is. [It was] kind of fun to watch.

That it speaks to something that makes me very sad and that I think about all the time: How hard it is to navigate the world as a black person. You're constantly having to justify your existence or justify your right to be a fully realized citizen of this country. I'm also really grateful because I came up in an era where these people can't silence me. All they're doing is helping my brand and helping the show.

I feel mixed about it, I guess. Just from a selfish point, it revealed this alt-right subculture that I knew about, that I'd read about, knew existed, had some moments with, but in being the target of it in such a full way, it revealed a lot of intricacies of the subculture that now as a storyteller, I get to go back and mine and use as story points in the future. Really, these guys just gave me seasons two through five. I guess I can only be grateful for that.

Dear White People premieres Friday on Netflix.

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