Dear White People began as a movie, but it actually makes more sense as a TV show. While heady and powerful, Justin Simien’s 2014 college-set film had so many ideas about stereotypes and microaggressions packed into it that you could almost feel it bursting at the seams. Debuting on Friday, April 28, the series repackages its four main characters for 13 episodes on Netflix: Sam (Logan Browning), a biracial campus activist ashamed of her relationship with her white TA (John Patrick Amedori); Lionel (DeRon Horton), a budding journalist whose gayness alienates him from the homophobic pockets of black culture; Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the class president buckling under the pressure of nonthreatening black perfectionism; and Coco (Antoinette Robertson), a South Side native desperately trying to fit in with the wealthy WASPs at their fake Ivy.
Simien and his showrunner, Yvette Lee Bowser, a producer on A Different World, took inspiration from Simien's experiences as one of the four black students (as he joked) at his ultra-white university, as well as from discussions he had with African-American college students today. The witty, visually striking comedy is no less intellectually ambitious in a serial format, which allows Simien and his writers to explore issues of contemporary and multifaceted blackness at a breathable pace. Simien talked to MTV News about the complicated black student community in Dear White People, what he learned about college students from A Different World, and the importance of parsing out the “who” from the “what” of our identities.
[This conversation has been edited and condensed.]
Dear White People is now a 10-year project for you, from when you first conceived of these characters to the show’s premiere. At the beginning of the project, why did you think college would be a good setting for a story that tackles racial issues?
Justin Simien: I’ve always loved a great multi-protagonist movie like Nashville or Do the Right Thing, because what they do is find a community and, by describing all the characters that play a part in it, say something about the greater human condition. [Having been] one of the very few black kids in a mostly white college [Chapman University in California’s Orange County], I had a lot of experiences in that specific microcosm, [and] I felt like I could use them to say something bigger about the country.
How much is college life today a part of the show?
Simien: We're definitely in a hyperreality, [but] there are elements of real-life college in the show, like not having a bathroom in your dorm room and having to walk across the hall, and the friendships that you make in that process. And something like "Defamation Night." [Defamation is the Scandal parody that brings together many of the black students in Dear White People every Wednesday.] Me and the three other black kids at Chapman — there were more than that — we'd get together and watch black TV shows on a certain night. That's a thing that I wanted to talk about and celebrate and make fun of in the series.
What were you and your friends watching in college?
Simien: Gosh, I don't even know what we could've been watching in 2005. I was super into Girlfriends at the time. We watched Gilmore Girls, which is not technically a black show, but we were into that. We watched and rewatched a lot of ’90s movies, like Do the Right Thing, Hollywood Shuffle, Love Jones, Boomerang — you know, that moment when black was cool in the ’90s. The friends that I was closest to were film people, so we spent a lot of time not just watching black stuff, but just anything.
There was something comforting about watching with other black people, because we had a perspective on it that you didn't always experience with the general population. To get to experience culture, whether that's a TV show or a movie or whatever, with other people from that same point of view — that was really necessary for me in college.
Can you talk about the black student community in Dear White People, which is very fractured and competitive, but also a psychological lifesaver for the characters?
Simien: That is something that I got from research. One of the things I saw as I visited a bunch of colleges talking about the [Dear White People] movie was, at the bigger colleges, there was this odd, very personal infighting. Black people instinctively know we're not a monolith, but it was really interesting to see how personally these kids took on their differences. There was major beef. [For example,] the Black Student Union versus the African-American Student Union — they have very real ideological differences with each other, what their role on campus was, and everyone thought that they were the best version of it.
That mirrors exactly what we went through in the civil rights movement in the ’60s. One of the things that the show really concerns itself with is, how do we do civil activism? How do we change things in the system? When we look back to the last time black people really made some meaningful gains, which was in the ’60s, we were also infighting — different people from all over the ideological spectrum talked about what to do about the problem of race. They didn't necessarily agree with each other, but they found a way to work with each other, which is something that I think we are struggling to do.
Something unexpected, at least based on my college experience, is how little the classroom plays a role in the characters’ political coming of age. The students grapple with race all the time, but nobody is taking black studies or black history classes. The only admirable-seeming black professor is sleeping with one of her students. Is there a reason why you wanted that divide between the characters’ campus activism and their academic journey?
Simien: I don't know if it's an intentional divide. As much as we wanted to include both [the students’] academic lives and the lives of the faculty in the first season, there just wasn't enough room for it. The Neika Hobbs character [the sexy professor] is a vestige of what was a much larger journey within the faculty world of Winchester. But that's all good, because we have, hopefully, seasons to get into all this.
In these shows where you follow students in college or high school, [the writers] sometimes make the choice to never address the reality of school life, like going to class. I'm bingeing, like everybody else, 13 Reasons Why, and yeah, we spend a lot of time with these teenagers doing very adult things [as opposed to studying] — I think that's just part of the genre.
Did you watch A Different World, the Cosby Show spin-off about students at a historically black college? And if you did, what did that show mean to you?
Simien: Oh my god, of course I watched A Different World! My dad was an educator and my mom was the only one in her family who went to college and got her doctorate degree. It meant very much to my family, especially my parents, that I understood that being black and having an education were not mutually exclusive concepts.
The impression it left on me as a kid was [that] there was something really attractive, just on a superficial level, about black adults who were witty and independent and self-thinkers and did things like go to college and become doctors. I mean, when you're a kid watching this stuff, I don't know how aware you can be of the profundity of that, but all of that stuff definitely seeped in. When I started thinking about Dear White People, there was just something innately attractive to me about having a bunch of whip-smart, really articulate black kids dealing with the realities in that bubble because of growing up on things like The Cosby Show and A Different World.
There’s a line from Sam’s friend Joelle, a black student played by Ashley Blaine Featherson, about how watching The Cosby Show in her dorm room is her secret shame. Do you also feel guilty that Bill Cosby's legacy is so important to you?
Simien: No, because for me, for whatever reason, I can hold both of those things in my head about him. His personal life — the stuff that we kind of know, the stuff that we think we know — and also his professional life, which had a lot of really spectacular moments in it, The Cosby Show being one of them, they're separate things. As a person who's loved a lot of celebrities that have gotten into trouble over the years, and particularly because there are racial dynamics at play [with Cosby] that are not there for other celebrities, I'm able to be on the side of the victims in this situation, but also appreciate what that show meant to me at the time.
The [Dear White People] characters are me 10 years ago, but I’m [now] more integrated than they are. It’s difficult to integrate all the things that make you who you are when you’re taught to focus on what you are. Because it can be dangerous or fatal to be black, because there are hardships with being a woman or being gay, you have to focus on “what” you are. It takes a longer time for a marginalized person to integrate contradictory things about who they are: It takes a few more steps. Making the show helped me figure that out for myself. So I don't feel particularly complicated about [Cosby], but I get why a person would.
A lot of my friends — particularly my black friends — joke all the time about the taboo things that we're into, if only people knew. Like, “Oh god, the creator of Dear White People is into that.” [Laughs.] We joke about that stuff because it's funny, [but] at one point in my life, it was probably serious. It took me a while to invite everybody to the same birthday party. I hung out with my friends in groups, and I kept certain parts of myself to myself when I was around those groups, and that just got to be too much.
Do you have any advice for young people who, like your characters, are struggling to reconcile their personal selves with their political ideals?
Simien: I would say that what you are in society is important: It is important that I'm a black, gay director. But more important is who you are. If you're caught up with what you are and what society thinks you are, it's never going to not feel like hell. You've got to put more investment in celebrating and understanding and having care for who you are, what your needs are, what you truly love. Those things are really important to figure out, because [otherwise] we can't be meaningful leaders in society, and we can't make meaningful impact in society.
As a person who's just as guilty as anybody of getting into a stupid fight on Twitter, these ideological disagreements — they just don't matter as much when you start to key into what it is that makes you happy. You on a Sunday, without a rally to go to, what're you about? It may not feel political, and it may not feel like it's moving the needle, but that is the way to combat that feeling of [being overwhelmed] at how fucked up things can be around us. We're never going to be in a completely free society in any of our lifetimes, so we've got to go somewhere when things get tough.