This interview contains spoilers for the fifth episode of Netflix’s Dear White People.
In Netflix’s Dear White People, Marque Richardson plays Reggie, Winchester University’s resident genius hacker slash activist. He’s also one of the show’s familiar faces: Richardson appeared as Reggie in Justin Simien’s 2014 film of the same name. While Reggie was mostly in the background of the film, this time around, he gets turn in the spotlight.
In the wrenching fifth episode of the series, Reggie gets into a fight with a white character who uses the N-word at a party, then winds up held at gunpoint by the campus police. As Richardson explained, the episode, which was directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, rejiggered the structure of the show and forced the writers to figure out a new way forward. Vulture caught up with Richardson, who’s also appeared in True Blood and All the Way, to talk about how playing Reggie is like therapy, shooting his big confrontation scene, and working with his college roommate Brandon P. Bell.
I want to start out by talking about the movie. After it played at Sundance in 2014, it really broke out. What was it like to go on that whole ride?
It was amazing experience from the beginning to the end. Justin Simien, Lena [Waithe, a producer], Angel [Lopez, a producer] — these were people that were my friends at the time, so was Brandon Bell [who plays Troy]. Doing this film back in 2013 was like summer camp. We just wanted to do our best and put it out there. Seeing the reception that it got at Sundance and after it was released, it was just an amazing experience.
There are so many jokes in the movie and the show about Tyler Perry movies and reality shows that don’t serve the appetite for this kind of thoughtful look at race. You guys came out and delivered something.
With film, everything is cyclical. We hadn’t seen a resurgence like this since Spike and School Daze and films of that nature. To be this age and a part of this quote-unquote resurgence of good black TV and cinema, I feel honored to be a part of it. Very, very lucky.
What was it like to come back for the TV show? Were you talking with Justin before it was announced?
Justin had kept tabs on all of us and was like, “Yo, I’m making this TV show, so get another a job or whatever.” I’m like, “Well Justin, daddy gotta eat so I’ll do what I can.” I feel so fortunate, because I did have other stuff going on and I wasn’t sure if I was actually going to come back to the series. I didn’t know if they were actually going to call me, especially with this business. This time around was definitely therapeutic, because this character was the first piece of work that I was able to explore what it means for me to be a young black man in America today. With the show, we get to take the time to really dive into who these characters are.
When you say therapeutic, do you like feel there are similarities between his story line and your life? Or is it about getting to explore a character like Reggie in a general sense?
Specifically for me, it’s trying to figure out where I fit in the world as Marque Richardson and in this world of activism. Standing up for what I believe in and standing up for other people’s rights, that’s the only way we can all progress. For me, it was impossible to play this character and go back home and put my blinders back on. That’s what I mean by therapeutic. I’m just now kind of realizing — because I’m slow — that art can be activism and that it should be activism, you know?
The Reggie episode opens with a quote from James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” That’s Reggie’s motto and it drives a lot of his character.
It’s like, “Is he a man or is a he a movement and can he be both?” It was interesting to put that in to my life. Reggie sticks up for everything that he believes in. At the end of that episode and going into episode six, Reggie’s like, “Oh shit, I am just a man and I don’t know if I want to be a movement or if I can be.” His father was a Black Panther and, in general, the human condition is living up to our parents’ reputations.
Early on, the episode sets up his frustration. He feels like Sam, who was leading the campus movement, has forgotten about the blackface party and betrayed him by dating a white guy.
You know, I feel like Reggie was also putting Sam in the forefront because of not wanting to have that full responsibility himself, just being scared.
Then there’s the confrontation at the party. Reggie gets in the fight with the white guy who wants to use the N-word and doesn’t understand why he can’t. That guy ends up playing the victim, which seems like a theme in this show.
Which is valid, I feel like. Valid in the sense that it is a real thing, in terms of certain people just not being aware, not having an awareness because of the privilege that they were just born into.
He thinks that it’s somehow an attack on him, rather than a simple request to acknowledge other people’s humanity.
You see that even in the release of the teaser. It wasn’t even the full trailer, it was just a 30 second teaser that Netflix put out. It was a biracial women saying, “Don’t mock me. Dear white people: You can’t do this.” That stuff is still happening. People are still doing this, that, and the other, some people with no ill intent. Some people are born into it.
Shooting that episode, you were working with Barry Jenkins. What was it like working with him, especially for that confrontation scene?
I thought about him yesterday. One, Barry is an amazing human being — so generous, so kind, very specific on what he wants. Throughout that episode, we had a mind meld. There was communication there, but it wasn’t always through words. I felt like we got each other, just being young black men alive today in America. I got what he needed from a look and he got what I needed from a look, if that makes sense. It was unspoken because this is us. Same with Justin.
It was so hard to watch, especially when campus police arrive and they pull the gun on Reggie. They just don’t believe that he could be a student.
I think that might have been the last shoot day of that episode. It was very draining, everyone was tired, but if you want to talk about the thoughts that were going through my mind, it was humiliating. It was dehumanizing. I’d just had a nephew around that time, and what really got me was that though I live through this every day, my baby nephew is going to have to grow up in this reality. It broke my heart for him and my people. That broke my heart. That’s just the reality of it. And it fucking sucks.
I want to ask you about the final shot of the episode. Reggie leaning against the wall and crying, while Sam is on the other side saying, “We gotta go do something. We’ve got to go protest.” That’s a terribly sad moment for him. He realizes he has to tend to himself rather than be part of a movement.
I actually had that conversation with the writer at the time. After that [scene], it was like, personally, as Marque, I’m not over this. I’m not coming outside, I’m not talking to anybody. We see a little bit of that as Reggie disappears, and as the rest of the campus is looking for him, but Marque wouldn’t have been able to go up on that stage in 106 [as Reggie does]. I think that was the next day?
Yeah, it happens very quickly.
Marque would have kept his ass inside the house, for like three weeks or whatever. But Reggie, he may not be ready, but he still forces himself to get outside the house and make a decision. Again, it’s back to whether he’s a man or a movement or both. He’s dancing with that.
I was surprised that Reggie could channel the experience into something, into a poem or any thoughts whatsoever.
To be honest, I still have PTSD from that night. When I read that script, I just cried. I was working out on my bike, going up hills and shit, thinking about it. I was crying through my fucking sunglasses and big-ass helmet visor. People were like, “What’s wrong, dude?”
That episode changed the rest of the season. They had other stuff planned, but I guess you couldn’t just go back to the levity. After the confrontation night, I think the writers went back and were like, “Oh, we’re dealing with something different than we initially had planned.” It’s not like you can just have that, display that, and go back to hunky-dory, la-dee-da. But kudos to the writing staff: Just from reading it and the work of it, I felt like they really kept the gravitas of that moment and also the humor, as well.
You’re working working with Justin, Barry, and Lena. What’s it like to be among this group of young black filmmakers?
I’m so fortunate to be this age, this person, this time of my life in this business. Working with Justin, we have a long history together. He’s an amazing human. So Zen, so specific. Such a genius on what he wants. I’ve worked with a lot of different people, directors that have done whatever, and Justin is such a top talent. He’s just so fucking cool to be around, which makes it so much sweeter.
You’ve worked with Brandon before. What is it like to come back into this world with him?
It was refreshing. Brandon, he’s like my brother. We went to USC together, freshman year, and have been friends ever since. We were roommates at one point. Like I said, I’m slow, so I didn’t even realize that we actually lived the Armstrong-Parker Dear White People experience, because we lived on an all-black floor at USC. It was called Somerville Place and you had to apply. It was this big-ass dorm tower with, like, 16 floors. Each level had a special interest floor. You had a Latino floor, you had a gay and lesbian floor, you had a quiet floor, you had the black floor. So we lived this Dear White People experience. I didn’t get that until I was sitting with Justin at Sundance doing an interview and I was like, “Oh shit! I lived this!” And he’s like, “Yep.” [The interviewer] just looked at me like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Like, “Didn’t you realize that this was your experience?”
And I didn’t! I was like “Oh, okay. Dur dur dur.” To come back with Brandon has been an amazing experience. We actually talked about it once we saw the first two episodes. We said, “Yeah. We felt awesome about the film, but the show is something different. It just feels so special.” To speak on the new people coming in, they’re all so fresh. They’re so fucking good. We all had a great time. They all put their individual spin on these characters. DeRon [Horton], Antoinette [Robertson], and Logan [Browning] did an amazing job.
You said this show has gotten you to think about activism. Has it changed the kinds of projects that interest you?
Dear White People was the first of anything that I’ve done to allow me to explore activism, even though I didn’t really realize that when we shot it in 2013. I heard everything that was happening and I was aware, but I didn’t really understand that art could be activism, until, like, shit, maybe three weeks ago? The actual phrase “art can be activism” didn’t hit me until South by Southwest, when I was really able to digest everything that was really happening. You can’t do this work and go do another project that goes against what you’ve done with this, if that makes sense. That doesn’t mean that everything I do in the future, you know, has to be about race and this and that, but everything I do in the future, hopefully, will spark a conversation that’ll help progress people forward.
There’s a lot of that in Dear White People. It shows Reggie as a complete person — the angry side, yes, but also his sadness.
I had a conversation the other day with a friend. I don’t know where Reggie is in other TV projects or films. My memory is very faint, but I don’t see him anywhere, without being the “Angry Black Man” or this or that. You get to see, throughout the series, that all these characters are fully developed and layered. Right or wrong, they’re all human at the end of the day. You get to see all of the sides of that. Or a lot of the sides of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.