Justin Simien and the Stars of Dear White People on Why Everything About the Show Is a Risk

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Logan Browning in Dear White People. Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

Three years ago, director Justin Simien stormed Hollywood with Dear White People, his debut feature that knocked the wind out of Sundance with brazen racial satire and grievances unmistakably directed at the white folks in the room. Now adapted for Netflix and premiering on April 28, Simien’s TV show of the same name is something different. It’s lighter on the laughs and, unlike the film, it doesn’t hold the political climate at arm’s length. Still, one constant remains: Dear White People can’t escape scrutiny.

Ahead of the series premiere, Vulture sat down with Simien, Logan Browning (who replaces Tessa Thompson as Samantha White), and Brandon P. Bell (who returns as Troy Fairbanks) to talk about how Dear White People handles racism and homosexuality, why Simien stopped trying to make a satire, and how everything about the show is a risk.

When did you know you wanted this to be a TV show?
Justin Simien: I knew before the movie came out. I love multi-protagonist movies, but you can’t service every character as deeply as you would if it was just about one person. There were stories that I was burning to keep telling, especially as we started to tour the film around college campuses and I was seeing how it was hitting kids who were actually living it. I had so many stories left. They belonged on TV, ultimately.

You could’ve just made a sequel to the movie, but instead you semi-recast the original and adapted it for Netflix. Was that a risk?
JS: There’s nothing about this show that’s not a risk, to be honest. The intention at first was to have the same cast and just continue on in the television format. But, I’ll say this: With a slightly new cast, it’s almost like a slight reboot. Story-wise, we’re picking up where we left off with the film, but it’s a reintroduction to these people. For people who haven’t seen the movie, you should be able to watch the first episode and go. Having new folks in these roles, it helps that. Also, give me a break, these people are geniuses. This girl right here [points to Browning], Antoinette Robertson [who plays Coco], DeRon Horton [who plays Lionel], they’re brilliant. One of the joys of the movie that I’m getting to experience again with the show is people discovering these actors for the first time and going, “Where the hell have they been?” Every single little role is being played by a star. That’s how much talent there is with actors of color and usually they don’t get to show that off.

Logan, how did you go about stepping into the role that gave Tessa Thompson her big break? It’s a lot of responsibility to be the anchor of the show.
Logan Browning: I watched the movie, for one. I also read the screenplay because a lot of things change from the screenplay to what makes the film after editing, improv, and missed stage direction. It gave me a lot of insight into the Winchester world and all of the characters because I didn’t think it was important for me to only know Sam. I needed to know how Sam fits in the world from other perspectives. Everyone has a slice of the pie that they have to complete in order to make it a cohesive Patti pie.

Brandon, you’re one of the few returning cast members. How was it revisiting this world?
Brandon P. Bell: It’s like revisiting a friend that you haven’t seen in a while. It was familiar, but I also got to explore new terrains because Troy is put in some unique situations. I got to dive into who Troy is and what makes him tick. Coming away from the film, he’s torn between the expectations of his father and everyone else and also wanting to do his own thing. Before we started filming, I talked a lot with Justin about Troy’s arc and where he ends up. I think people will be surprised.

The movie was written a decade ago, but Justin, I assume you started writing the show after the film’s release.
JS: Wow, life comes at you fast. The movie came out in 2014 and probably by the end of 2014, I felt from Lionsgate that there might be some interest in doing the show. In 2015, I started putting together what we call the bible — all the story lines for the first season, comprehensive discussions about who the characters are and where they’re going, and then, of course, the first episode. But I was really waiting to have a team to help write it. I wanted disparate points of view — that’s what the movie and show are all about. I needed people who didn’t think like me to start contributing to the show’s world.

It feels that way. The movie was overwhelmingly insular, whereas the show doesn’t detach itself from reality. There are references to the deaths of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland, and there’s a very pointed Cosby joke. What motivated you to take off the gloves?
JS: I can’t help it. There’s a really naughty part of my brain and when I’m writing in the voice of a character, I go to the most extreme joke I can think of. I try not to edit that voice and inclination. That’s part of what makes it me. These characters aren’t my mouthpiece, but when occasionally their ideologies line up with mine, we strike gold together. There’s a moment in episode five, brilliantly directed by Barry Jenkins, where the characters start to talk about a subject that I agree with. I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s about another filmmaker. I just can’t help myself.

The show’s urgency is evident from Sam’s emotional monologue at the end of the pilot. That moment is going to especially resonate with black people. Justin, walk me through writing that speech and then, Logan, how you performed it.
JS: It was really important for me, in the first episode, to distinguish Sam’s point of view on why something like [her radio show] “Dear White People” is not racist, but why something like [the blackface party] Dear Black People is racist. It had to be in the first episode because, girl, they are really trying it.

LB: And that’s the first line in the monologue.

JS: The blackface party is called Dear Black People because I just wanted to get right into it. Let’s talk about what makes this racist. Racism, in my opinion, is bigotry plus power. It’s not the same as bigotry or prejudice — which are terrible, by the way — but what Sam points out in that first episode is that jokes about white people don’t actually affect their everyday lives. Jokes about black people have systemic consequences that are not made up; they’re statistically proven and true. It’s a system in place. When this country was founded, black people were slaves, so we’ve chiseled away at the foundation but it’s still there. We’re still carving out an area for us. I thought it was an interesting perspective for anyone willing to hear it from a black point of view. What is the difference? Why is white racism not real? Sam didn’t get a chance to articulate that in the film.

LB: The words were so important to me. You can’t paint if you don’t have colors. I wanted to make sure I understood every part of that monologue. Each name that is mentioned is important to me and I wanted to give them their own moment. I worked with an old friend, Richard Lyons, who’s actually a comedic coach, but we ended up looking at that monologue together. The other coach I had was this Australian white woman who’s very clued-in to racism in America, but there was something very different about sitting across from this black man and having a conversation about our perspectives. It got into my blood in a different way. I didn’t even think I was gonna get through the first take, but we did it in one take.

JS: We were at the monitor crying. My showrunner, Yvette Lee Bowser, was speechless and reduced to tears. I was like, “K, I think the take’s working!” I work with every actor very differently and, with Logan, her instincts are just very good. With this kind of material, honesty is the most important thing. That connection the actor has with the material, even if doesn’t sound like it did in my head, is way more important. That always comes through to the audience.

When you were writing the show, was it your intention to make it less of a satire? It’s a lot looser with genre than the movie.
JS: I can only think of two other satires on the air, Veep and Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley, for me, was something to aspire to because that show slips into satire, but it’s a sitcom. It’s a dramedy about these very fleshed-out characters, but when they enter the workplace, it satirizes elements of that life. It’s not a straightforward satire like Veep, which is persistently satirizing U.S. policy and the government. For me, this show is about the characters. When I pitched it to Lionsgate, I felt that people would be really tired of nonstop race satire. If we were gonna succeed, we have to care about these people. You can’t just see them as archetypes, which is necessary for a satire. Selina in Veep, you can’t get to her heart because then it’s no longer satire. Then it’s something else. I had to get to the heart of these characters.

I also imagine satire is not as easy to write as it once was. Even the creators of South Park have said the behavior of Trump’s administration has affected their ability to create great satire.
JS: Malcolm Gladwell has a podcast called Revisionist History and all of the writers were listening to it. The last episode was about satire, actually. They were talking about The Colbert Report and how there was a large portion of conservatives watching that show who took him at face value. They had no idea he was making fun of them. Satire is very tricky and it doesn’t always achieve the goal. It was more important to me that my show hits you in the gut, and it will. That’s the only way to really have a conversation in this environment about race. Satire removes you a bit from the thing that’s actually happening. It felt irresponsible in this day and age.

The show also delves into the intersections of black masculinity and homosexuality. We see Lionel come out to Troy. How was handling that scene?
BPB: We tried to be sensitive and open to it. It can be such a horrendous experience for some people, in the real world, who haven’t come to terms with their sexuality yet. I trust Justin’s writing first and foremost and DeRon’s courage and willingness — similar to Tyler James Williams — makes it really easy. It can be funny, depending on how you present it, but at the same time, there should be empathy to help people understand. The goal is to make fun of things but also shine a light. Young people are trying to figure out their sexuality. Is it awkward? Yes. That’s part of it, but it’s such a delicate line to play with.

LB: A lot of young black men who are in Troy’s position — experiencing another young black man falling for them — might shun that person and won’t love up on them, accept them, or befriend them. They diss and discard them. If that’s your first experience expressing your love, how difficult is it gonna be for you to continue to discover your sexuality? Brandon’s approach to that mirrors Troy’s approach to Lionel.

Troy is this model of hypermasculinity, so I expected him to run for the hills. Instead, his reaction subverts the norm entirely.
JS: We’ve seen black men mock homosexuality and gay men enough. I’ve seen it enough. It’s an issue that I think we’d maybe explore in future seasons, but for these characters, it just felt tired. The fresher thing would have him be embraced. That was my experience. I was in love with a straight guy, which I think is a sort of rite of passage for every gay man, and when I told him about it, he was so kind. I wanted to show other aspects of black masculinity than this knee-jerk reaction against homosexuality. I saw the film with different audiences and I remember, famously, the Morehouse football team had a visceral and loud reaction to the kiss scene. But I had actually screened the movie the week before at Morehouse with a group of students and they were cheering for Lionel. Those experiences are both true. But I’ve never seen this portrayal before. Gay people are always mocked, that’s always the narrative. That’s not every black man, especially not millennial black men. Maybe a part of me wanted this to be an example to other straight guys watching the show: You can just do this instead and still be straight. You still get to have sex with women even if you’re friends with a gay guy.

BPB: At this point, don’t we all have a friend or family member who’s homosexual? We’ve gotta be at one degree. I really appreciated Lionel’s communication because admitting that takes so much courage, especially in the awkwardness of being in an intimate situation with Troy cutting his hair with his shirt off. If they’re gonna be roommates, they have to be able to reveal things to each other that they can’t necessarily reveal to other people. That leaves with you a great place to grow.

JS: And straight-gay male friendships are a thing. That same guy that I had a crush on, he seemed to prefer gay men being his friends because we didn’t buy into all that masculine bullshit and we could speak freely. He wasn’t experiencing that with his straight friends. That’s a relationship I found to be much more interesting and fresh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Dear White People Creator Justin Simien on Racism and Satire