'Dear White People' Creator Justin Simien on Trolls, Katy Perry and Season Two (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Justin Simien has a lot to say.
The 34-year-old creator of Dear White People, a Netflix series adapted from his 2014 film of the same name, can speak at length about what it means to be a gay black man in Hollywood -- or in America, which remains divided along racial lines. And that’s more than OK. Simien is one of the many rising voices diversifying the kinds of stories told and seen on TV -- one that we need more of.
With Dear White People, he pulls the veil back on what many believed was a post-racial world following the election of President Barack Obama, offering insight into the black experience in a white America as seen through the interlocking stories of four black students -- Samantha, Lionel, Coco and Troy -- at the fictitious, predominantly white Ivy League school Winchester University. The show, which included an episode directed by Barry Jenkins dealing with gun violence against unarmed black people, finished production the day that President Donald Trump was elected, and when the first trailer arrived a few months later, it was attacked by Twitter trolls and bigots.
“We're literally in the sunken place as a nation surrounded by fake news; I would be remiss to put out a show called Dear White People and not address where we are,” Simien says, adding that in the year full “of troll attacks, riots, uprisings” since the show debuted, he had plenty of new material to explore.
On the second season, which is now streaming on Netflix, Simien doubles down on identity, pushing his characters into various head-spinning conflicts -- like Sam dealing with alt-right pushback on campus -- about what it means to be black or a woman or a gay man or a conservative or even a Hotep. Even more so, Dear White People examines how these characters present themselves and how people react to them.
In a conversation with ET, Simien speaks at length about cultural appropriation, Katy Perry, Donald Trump and the trolls that inspired season two.
ET: When the trailer for season one came out, it was immediately trolled by bigots and the alt-right. How much is the new season a reaction to that moment?
Justin Simien: I think my reaction was what I said online and the Medium article I wrote. But the thing I was really taken aback by wasn't just woeful ignorance and misunderstanding of the title, there was a lot of willful ignorance. There was a lot of, "We're choosing to be confused because if we can pretend to be confused about the title, we can effectively get people outraged." Outrage has become a kind of currency and a kind of recruiting tool for various groups. There were many, many things that we were following in the writers' room, but one of them was this discovery that so many of the Russian bots were not just on the alt-right side of arguments but they were also on pro-black sides of the argument. Their intention was to make everybody seem really crazy. And the brilliance of that is when you think everyone is crazy, you start to go crazy yourself and you start to say crazy shit. It's like that's the Achilles' heel of American psyche that I was really interested in. I thought it was a symptom of the fact that so much of being a happy American relies upon having amnesia about the past, about being willfully misinformed about the past, about buying into all kinds of fake news.
This I have talked about: We have a national holiday celebrating what is essentially the genocide of people -- that's how America started. There are still children who come up in this country who think it was this cute “Kumbaya” moment where everyone decided to share. [There are] people who still think that slavery was a volunteer program that made Africans better off than they were. These are things that people still believe. Those are the easy ones. Race is an incredibly complicated topic, and the reason why I think my personal diagnosis of the issue, why we have such a hard time talking about race and why something like Donald Trump can happen so easily and why we're so easily manipulated by a foreign entity, is because we're not taught about race in any real way. Black history is a month, slavery is maybe a chapter and then you move on. But it's actually something that forms the basis of our economy that has not only repercussions but ripples in every aspect of how American society works, down to the only words we have to describe race. It goes back really far and there's no interest, it seems, in helping American people really understand how we got there.
So, I called it an Achilles' heel just now and I think [on Dear White People] we're exploring that -- the way secrets make us sick and the way in which they make us vulnerable and easily manipulated. It's something I wanted to explore, not only in the world of Winchester, which is certainly a stand-in for America, but everyone's individual lives. Everybody -- Lionel, Sam, Coco, Troy -- they're all keeping secrets from each other, secrets from themselves. It's making their lives crazy and they don't even realize. That was our lens. That was our focus this season.
It's interesting you mention the characters are holding onto and hiding secrets, because at times, watching the new season, I felt like everyone was not so much hiding secrets but were having to pretend. They all have some level of facade they have to deal with, like Lionel for instance. He has to fake his way through gay parties to fit in with the different groups of friends in episode three.
To me, secrets is sort of a sound-bite way of saying what you are talking about. You know, RuPaul's quote sums it up the best: “We're all born naked and the rest is drag.” What he's talking about is that everything in society is fiction. We're all playing a big game of improv. We're all pretending to a degree. I think that at the heart of all the Dear White People iterations is confusing the role you have to play with who you really are and getting lost in that process. I think if Lionel was able to tell Silvio how he feels, maybe he wouldn't find himself in all of these places and chasing that guy around. But you're right, I think [there’s a] contrast between who we are when we're around a bunch of people who expect something of us and who we are when we're around people who can see who we are. I think that's the human thing that makes Dear White People a universal show. I'm talking about these things from a black point of view, but everyone knows what that feels like. That's the human condition.
My favorite phrase is “black comes at you fast,” like Reggie thinks he can party with these white kids carefree, but he can't. I think that really fucks a lot of us, and I think that will always be the secret sauce, if you will, or magic formula of the show: putting people in those situations where they have to pretend to be different versions of themselves.
You wrote season two after Donald Trump was elected. Tell me about the decision to not bring him into the show. You could have easily made more direct reference to him or brought him in as a character, but he's not there.
My feeling was, one, that us talking about him too much, honestly, was one of the reasons why he was so successful, but also, Dear White People is always trying to get at the heart of things and Donald Trump is just a symptom. We weren't a country that had to have a huge, crazy, political reaction to having a pretty good president who happened to be black. [If we didn’t], we wouldn't be in a Donald Trump situation. But, in fact, white people, in particular, do feel personally attacked when black people find liberty and certain kinds of freedom. For me, it's more interesting to deal with the problem, the real root issues, as opposed to the symptom.
Also, I didn't want to say his name. I didn't want to put his name in a piece of art that I'm making that's going to last as long as people last. Like, for what? He exists in every respect of our cultural journals. No one is not going to know he was president. My feeling was, and my rule for the writers' room was, unless it fucking laid me out, unless it was the funniest thing anyone has ever said or something really new to say, then there wasn't any point or benefit in mentioning his name. I didn't want to say his name unless it was really going to be useful. We couldn't come up with anything particularly useful or new or interesting to say about it.
What I do love, though, is when you bring someone into the show by name, and that's largely through the pop culture references. My favorite by far this season is when you make the joke about Katy Perry and the song, “Oppression featuring Migos.” That was so on point.
[Laughs] It was funny, because there were a few Katy Perry fans who were up in arms [when the teaser was released] and I read some of the tweets. They were trying to say that I was calling her a white nationalist or something, which I think is a bit of a stretch. Talk about choosing to be outraged. But yeah, for me, it's about saying that culturally, everything is always up for grabs. I don't think that Katy Perry is a white nationalist -- funny I have to keep qualifying that -- but I do think that the brilliance of the white nationalist movement is that they have appropriated the language of the opposition. They now use words like oppression and marginalization and erasure. They're using all this terminology in order to get their base excited, and that, to me, is a more systemic, dangerous, frightening version of the more lighthearted person, which is white artists adopting all kinds of aspects of the black experience in order to make pop music.
Listen, I have yet to do the episode on cultural appropriation or give my statement on it as a artist, but my feelings on it are pretty complex. I don't think you can stop white people, and I don't think we should try to stop white artists from appropriating black culture. What is so eye-roll-inducing about it is when people don't know where it came from and we start celebrating Miley Cyrus as if she invented twerking when twerking as a word and as a dance and as a concept, that's been around for so long. People were saying that Elvis was the king or the inventor of rock ‘n’ roll -- that's the part that really pisses me off about so-called cultural appropriation, is that we're in a society where a group of us are providing so much culture but are getting so little credit for it and, in fact, our careers are being marginalized because of the success of our white counterparts. That's the part that really pisses me off. To me, it's just a really funny joke. [Laughs] I don't think you can get mad about it, if you don't get what I'm talking about.
When the joke happened, I also thought, I wonder if Justin's been listening to Still Processing, because they would have some feels about it.
That's the thing: I'm not as mad at her as everybody else. Honestly, I don't think it was the smartest decision to make. I was not outraged by the Pepsi commercial [starring Kendall Jenner], I was more like, “Why on Earth, in 2018, do you have a marketing department with no black people?” Obviously, not enough black people are employed by your firm to stop something so stupid from happening. It's less I'm outraged and more like, “Really? You don't have somebody on the team to be like, ‘Girl, don't do that’?” That to me is funny more than anything because it's so avoidable.
Given that both seasons of the show are very topical to what's happening in America right now, especially with season two leaning into the alt-right trolls and the subplot involving Sam, is there a concern about feeling dated? Or, on the flip side of that, do you want the show to be a time capsule at all -- do you want it to preserve what is happening right now so people can look back on it?
That's the thing about comedy: the best comedies do both. I can still watch early Simpsons and get all of my life, even though some of the references don't quite play anymore, don't quite make any sense. The reason is because the comedy is based on something more fundamental. I mean, it's really sad to say, but there's nothing we talk about in the show that hasn't been around for several hundred years. Even if we're talking about the trolls -- yes it's expressed through the internet and through what we call Chullah in the show, but it's very similar to Twitter -- way back when, it was just posts hanging on the front of saloons or newspaper ads or propaganda paintings. It's literally been the same thing for hundreds of years; you can go back and find people saying, “Well, you've been freed of slavery, what are you complaining about?” This notion that it's the black people who are complaining about the problem, not actual oppression, is not new. There have been countless Donald Trumps. That's another reason why I didn't feel the need to say his name.
Now, mind you there are some [references] that aren't going to make as much sense. There's a Kamala Harris reference. Who knows what her political future is going to look like? Outside of this particular moment of time, I don't know how much sense that will make, but it was important -- moments like that I always weigh -- because I think it says something different. That particular line about Kamala Harris running with Michelle Obama, it makes a kind of sense and articulates a kind of frustration that needs to be articulated right now. What it becomes is a time capsule later, and I think that's an important time capsule.
The idea that there's a black woman who is afraid of two black women running because of the reaction -- that, I think, is interesting because black people being afraid of a retaliation of living openly is not new and, sadly, I don't think it's going to be old any time soon. For me, it's all about if we're saying something deeper than just the reference -- then I think it's OK... I'm not that worried about it. I think that's something network execs worry about, maybe writing teachers worry about, but if you're telling a compelling story or telling a fundamental truth, I don't think it matters as much.
The show obviously is rooted in race and tells the varying perspectives of those experiences, and to some degree, sexuality, at least how I directly relate to the show. Is there ever concern or pushback about what to include or not to include? For instance, are you telling enough of the varying black experiences? Are you telling enough of the gay black experiences?
No, I'm not telling enough, but it's a 10-episode show. The only way any of us are going to get enough is if there's actual parity in the industry, if there's actually as many black shows, black voices and gay shows and gay voices and women and Asians and whatever. That's the only way anybody is going to get enough. We're just scratching the surface. It's really tempting to claim mission accomplished because I have a show, Issa [Rae] has a show, Donald [Glover] has a show, Lena [Waithe] has a show. We all have shows about the young, black experience on the air -- all very different shows -- and it's tempting to say mission accomplished, but that doesn't come close to parity. That doesn't even come close to representing all of the people in this country, let alone this world. The short answer is no, I'm not telling enough. That's part of the price of admission when you're not a straight white guy, daring to tell something about your life, is that someone is going to feel like they've been left out and they weren't included.
There was that article that went out about how Black Panther failed the gay community because it didn't get into the intersection of black and queerness. I guess there's a time and place for that commentary -- it's a free society and I think it helps us all get stronger -- but it's not also possible to include every narrative and every story. I think [me doing] anything past what I know to be true and what I understand of the human condition is doing everybody a disservice. It becomes a PSA or a Benetton ad if I try to include every single aspect. Then we're talking about propaganda, and I'm not making a pamphlet, you know what I mean? I'm making a TV show.
Listen, I could make a whole show about each of these characters and still not come close to telling all the stories that need to be told. We could do a total gay, nerd, black show and do seven seasons -- and by the way, I think we should! -- and not even get to in what people in New York are experiencing or people in different socioeconomic classes, we're not going to even come close. Queer as Folk didn't even come close in expressing the totality of the gay experience in America, but you have to start somewhere and you gotta do what you can. The best thing you can do is be honest to the experiences you can speak on. That's really all I can do, bruh. [Laughs]
You said there's only so much you can do with this show and what you want to do, but as a gay man of color, have you ever felt limited in terms of what stories you can tell or how much space you do have to tell them?
I'll say this: Netflix never pushes back on topics. They never say, "This is too crazy." I never get that. Usually their pushback is more about wanting to make that the story plays their audience or for them personally. It's really very story-based. But industry-wide, that's the thing about racism, it's so tricky to define sometimes. All I can say is I look at my peers who had similar experiences and similar box office -- everything economically is the same -- but they're allowed to walk into certain rooms, walk through certain doors and tell certain stories that have eluded me. That I know and that I can always sense. But it's sometimes very difficult to pinpoint what exactly happened.
At this point, there have been two or three film projects that I've been up for where I had a successful pitch and the producers really liked me and everything was really great and I didn't get the job, and they have since come out being directed by white people. That is very apparent to me. In terms of the industry, my success isn't the same as a white person who has my level of success would have. It doesn't equal the same opportunities. I am fortunate it does equal some opportunities, OK, because 20 years ago, it would be even worse for me. I'm careful not to complain and [say] woe is me, to answer your question, yes. There's a certainly a difference. There are clearly little glass -- I won't call it ceilings -- but a set of walls that I find are very difficult for me to walk through. But that's the experience I'm talking to, so I treat it the way any artist should, which is to feel it and incorporate it into the work and keep speaking about it.
Do a little thought experiment: If Dear White People was the same exact show but Chris Pratt made it or Stephen Colbert or Bill Hader made it, there would be none of this outrage. There would be none of the alt-right petitioning against the show. There would be no flooding of our IMDb page to make people think it's controversial when it's not. We might have won an Emmy by now. That's just for real. That's just the truth. If a white person teamed up with a black person to make the same show, it would be received completely different in this country. It's the system that we're in. All I can do is keep talking about that system as honestly as possible and try to help see how what affects me affects everybody.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Additional reporting by Courtney Tezeno.