When Netflix announced that its celebrated series “Dear White People” had seen a massive increase in viewership during the social justice protests that erupted following George Floyd‘s death it was admittedly a “weird consolation prize” for creator Justin Simien. Because frankly, why weren’t more people watching beforehand? And this writer wonders, why wasn’t it on more top ten critics lists? Or, after three seasons, has it not been nominated for a Peabody Award?
“It’s like we’ve been making the show passionately for several years. I think it’s always overlooked at awards time, in particular,” Simien says. “And for whatever reason, I mean, it has its fans and it always has a fervor when it was released, and our social media buzz is crazy. But it just doesn’t always seem to sort of [become] the center of popular culture, the way other shows with white casts, at our same level of [acclaim]. So it’s nice that it’s happening. It’s devastating that it’s happening on the heels of yet another series of murders by the state of black people. But also, as an artist, you kind of wonder, “Is anything I’m doing really even matter? Is anything I’m doing even really going to move the needle and what’s happening in the world?” And in that regard, it’s nice to know that there’s something that we’ve made, that we’ve been pouring our entire being into, and killing ourselves to make, that’s actually meeting the cultural moment right now. That does feel like, “O.K., I don’t know, I’ve done something meaningful. So, it’s complicated.”
The television version of “Dear White People” was inspired by the 2014 film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was an early breakout performance for Tessa Thompson. It chronicles the intersecting lives of a number of black students at a fictional Ivy League university. Simien and his writing staff have used the setting to tackle a number of societal issues that are unfortunately more “evergreen,” as he notes, than many of us would hope.
Simien discussed how the pandemic and protests have affected the production of the fourth and final season of the series as well as the current plan to release his second feature, “Bad Hair,” which debuted at Sundance earlier this year.
The Playlist: What have the last few weeks, months been like for you?
Really interesting. I mean, I sort of kind of crash-landed after Sundance and was so busy, and so like, “Oh my God, we have the turnout.” I mean, it was a nuts time. And so, when the pandemic and the lockdown hit, it was, I mean it’s devastating and horrifying, and filled with doom scrolling all night long. But also as an introvert, it’s kind of been great to stay inside my house all of the time and work from home. We were sort of writing the show over Zoom, which was good. It gave me something to do. And then, I don’t know, I’ve just found I have a lot of time to develop and do the fun part of it. So, I’ve been just trying to focus on that, and being as effective as I can be, in terms of the pandemic and the racial protests happening all over the world. But I have to say, my personal experience has been O.K. It really has been.
I feel like you either have friends or people you know, who are dealing with it pretty well or are just not dealing with it well, at all. The surprise is finding out who you thought might deal with it well, and actually isn’t.
I’m a homebody. My boyfriend’s a homebody. We have two cats. This is kind of a great scenario, just in terms of societal functioning. There’s no, I don’t have to cancel. I don’t have to sort of be late to anything. I don’t go to anything. It’s kind of perfect.
I saw that Netflix announced that “Dear White People’s” viewership had jumped almost 600% around the world during the initial period of protesting last month. Not that people weren’t watching it before, but is it a silver lining in terms of what’s going on in the world?
It’s a silver lining. I mean, it’s a weird consolation prize. It’s like we’ve been making the show passionately for several years. I think it’s always overlooked at awards time, in particular. And for whatever reason, I mean, it has its fans and it always has a fervor when it was released, and our social media buzz is crazy. But it just doesn’t always seem to sort of [become] the center of popular culture, the way other shows with white casts, at our same level of [acclaim]. So it’s nice that it’s happening. It’s devastating that it’s happening on the heels of yet another series of murders by the state of black people. But also, as an artist, you kind of wonder, “Is anything I’m doing really even matter? Is anything I’m doing even really going to move the needle and what’s happening in the world?” And in that regard, it’s nice to know that there’s something that we’ve made, that we’ve been pouring our entire being into, and killing ourselves to make, that’s actually meeting the cultural moment right now. That does feel like, “O.K., I don’t know, I’ve done something meaningful. So, it’s complicated.”
Have you gotten any feedback on social media? Is it teenagers who are checking it out for the first time who should be watching it? Is it more adults? Can you gauge that at all?
I don’t know, and they didn’t tell us. But to me, it seems to be one, people who watch the show and are watching it again. And then there’s a group of people who knew about the show or heard about the show, but just assumed that it wasn’t for them. I think that’s probably mostly white people, but there might be some people of color in there too, where they’re like, “Oh, I already know what that show is going to say. I already know what that show’s about. It’s either going to put me on blast for being a white person, or it’s going to tell me something I already know about racism.” And of course, that’s not what the show is. And the title, we’re always saying, is a misnomer. And so, I think people are just sort of finally giving it a chance and realizing that there’s something there that they really enjoy, and that they didn’t expect, and are spreading through word of mouth, just talking to friends about like, “Wow, you should really watch this show.” At least that’s what it looks like to me. And it’s also, I think 43% of the uptick is international. So, I think that, again, these racial issues, which are sort of, the mythology in Hollywood is that they are American issues. But I just know from showing the film [version] all over the world, that it’s really not just an American issue, this sense of black subjugation is global. And, I think again, it’s just people who may be thought that the show didn’t have anything to say that was relevant to them, realizing in this moment, maybe it does.
You mentioned the fact that you already wrote the fourth season. It’s still pretty unclear when anybody is really going to begin production again. Has that delay made you want to go back and change anything at all? Or are you just happy with what you guys had worked out in the script so far?
Yeah, I mean, unfortunately, and fortunately some of these issues are just evergreen. And when we’re ever writing the show we’re always really, really, really tuned into the cultural moment. And we tend to make predictions that come true, that are very disturbing. This happens every season, and this season really was no different. And as things have continued to unfold, the stuff that we came up with really just feels even more relevant. So, I think we’re all, I’m always working on the showdown to the final hour. I mean, we’re always working that script and working the jokes, and punching things up, and dialing things up, and dialing things down, and all that stuff. So, I think if anything, we might dial some things up, but really the heart of it, the thesis of this season is incredibly relevant and of the moment, I have to say, to my surprise and I don’t know dismay? But I think it’ll make for a really good season.
Do you have any idea when you might begin filmming?
No. I mean, I think we sort of have the optimistic plan that we’re all kind of preparing for, where we’re also kind of preparing for the pessimistic plan. I think we’re probably, like a lot of other productions in that way. Just sort of seeing [how] the curve is not at all flattening is going to affect things. I think we’re hopeful that there’s a scenario where we can shoot it this year. I think that’s where everyone’s at right now.
I wanted to ask about season three in particular because of the cliffhanger at the end of season two. When your team wrote the previous season, had you already worked out in your heads the main storyline for season three? Did you know exactly where you were going to go or had you sort of left it open-ended?
With a Netflix show like ours, you kind of have to leave it a little open-ended, because we didn’t know if we were going to come back. Each season we have to wait a few months before we find out if the show is coming back. And so, in a lot of ways, it was a cliffhanger that was in an optimistic world, where we would come back for a third season. And there were certainly some ideas, and some hopes, and some wishes. But, you kind of have to sort of start over again each season, just the way it’s structured, the way deals are structured, the way actors are paid and scheduled. I wish that we had the latitude to kind of plan that far in advance, but there were certainly some fanatic planning there. We knew what the Order of X was meant to be about. We knew what Giancarlo Espositio‘s character is meant to represent. We knew kind of in a, I guess, esoteric sense what it was all for and where it should all go. But the specifics of it, we kind of have to show up and go, “O.K., well this is the money we’re playing with. These are the limitations, these are the parameters. What of our vision can we make happen with those limitations?”
I’m always impressed by what shows can pull off knowing that often Netflix programs do not have the budgets viewers think they have.
No [they do not]. [Laughs.]
And yet somehow, the show looks more and more gorgeous every season. You also get these amazing directors to come in and work on an episode or two. This past season you had Cheryl Dunye, Had you met her beforehand? How did she come on board and participate?
I mean, Cheryl Dunye is a fucking legend. And I saw “Watermelon Woman” when I was a teenager and my mind was so blown away that someone could do something like that. And that was the first time a black lesbian was able to make a feature film, which I learned later, was so shocking because it was like 1994 for God’s sake. There was a documentary that’s also on Netflix, about Catch-22, the gay, black nightclub in LA. And she and I were sort of there on a panel to talk with a filmmaker and that’s when she and I started talking and I was like, “Oh, I would be so fucking honored to have you on the show.” And she was everything I hoped she would be and more, really, truly. I think part of what the secret sauce of the show is, is that I have a pretty clear sense of what the show is about and what the rules of the show are. But when a director comes to work on the show, or when writers come into the writer’s room, I really want to set them up to tell their stories, and to do it their way, and to bring their very specific point of view to this heightened reality of Winchester University. And it’s why a Barry Jenkins directed episode is going to feel totally different than a Cheryl Dunye episode. It’s going to feel totally different than a Janicza Bravo episode because I want it to feel like they got to put their stamp on it. I don’t want them to sort of aid my style, or sort of do it in the, color inside the lines really. I want this thing to feel organic, and artistic, and go through movements like a symphony.
That’s one of the things that I love about the show because there’s so many other series, even prestige series, that don’t allow that. They bring in name directors and they make them stay within this little box. And I feel like you can watch the Cheryl episode, you can watch the Kimberly Peirce episode, you can watch your episode. I mean, even last night I was re-watching, episode nine directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield and the visual style was clearly different than what you went with the following episode. I think that’s a huge reflection on you and honestly makes me hope you make more TV because we need to see more of that.
Well, look, I’d love to. Salli Richardson-Whitfield, I mean, I think more people know her as an actress. But, boy oh boy is she a fantastic director. Like, Omigod. I learned so much from her. It’s, like I’m getting to go to film school again, or something. I’m getting to get my masters, having these amazing directors around.
The last thing I want to ask you about is “Bad Hair” which debuted at Sundance. It got picked up by Hulu and is scheduled for an October release, Granted we have no idea about when movie theaters are really going to open up but is there any theatrical or drive-in plan on the table?
Yeah. I mean, that was the plan, in February, was to have a theatrical release. I think everybody is sort of just waiting to see what’s possible. I still had some pretty significant work to do on the film after Sundance. So, my head was sort of in the edit, and in the effects, and in some other aspects of the film. And so, I feel like it’s finally done, or at least done enough where I can’t come up with anything else to do. And so, Hulu has it and they’re figuring out how they want to release it. It’ll definitely be on the service by October. I think we’d all love a theatric release, but I also, I totally understand if that’s not in the cards. And at this point, I’ve been working on that movie for so long, I just want it to be out. I just want people to see it. So, I’m actually very grateful that we went with a streamer.
“Dear White People” seasons one through three are available on Netflix.