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'Dear White People' creator Justin Simien on popping the 'post-racial bubble'




"Dear White People" creator/writer Justin Simien (center) with actors DeRon Horton (left) and Logan Browning.
Adam Rose/Netflix

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The new Netflix series, "Dear White People," is an adaptation of the 2014 film of the same name, created by Justin Simien, the film’s writer/director.

The series shares much of the DNA of the original film. It’s still set at the predominantly white Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school, and, like the film, it still uses satirical, self-referential comedy to address touchy topics like race, politics and sexuality.

But with less rigid time constraints, the series is able to delve deeper into the characters' lives, focusing on a different person's perspective in each episode:

Justin Simien spoke with The Frame's John Horn about how the conversation surrounding race in America has changed since 2014, and what it was like to adapt his film for the small screen.

Interview highlights:

On how the television series allowed him to get closer to his original vision for 'Dear White People'

The first way I conceived ‘Dear White People,’ the film, was as this really long, bloated, Robert Altman-esque thing where every character had their sort of mini-movie going on, and that was just not a possibility as a first film. So to go back to that version is just really exciting. And frankly, the journey of starting to write it in 2005 to actually making in 2013, there was just so much that was left on the cutting room floor ... stuff that we didn't even shoot, characters that I didn't even really get to include. And then touring with the movie — specifically at college campuses that were dealing with racial issues, talking to students and faculty — as a storyteller I just was really busting at the seams with more to say. And [in] our country, I think that talking about racism openly is no longer a taboo thing. We've sort of popped the post-racial bubble.

On the misconceptions that people have about the show

One of the things that I think that is easy — if you haven't really experienced the movie or the show — is to think that this is some kind of laundry list of things that white people do wrong. But I don't think that that's terribly interesting, to be honest. And so, yes, there is a global plot that sort of echoes some of the things that make the headlines, but in each episode we are experiencing that global plot from a very particular character's point-of-view. You know, Lionel, who's a student journalist in the series, he might be reporting on some racist incident, but his daily life is not made up of that. His daily life is made up of having a crush on his straight roommate, you know? And so [we're] exploring the humanity below the headlines, and below the ways that these people are normally characterized and thought of. I always said that [for] the racial identity politics of the campus, that always had to be a B or C storyline. The A storyline had to be something specific to that character and their journey through the world.

On the online backlash that was sparked by the teaser trailer to announce the series premiere date

They did us such a favor. I mean, it was everywhere. I remember when Netflix showed me the date announcement, I was like, Okay, yeah! Cool! There was nothing controversial about it. I mean, if anyone has been following it, they've seen Sam White in a radio booth saying, "Dear White People, (insert the blank)." And, I mean, David Duke had a [blog] post, Sarah Palin got involved, Milo whatever-his-name-is — he was in it. Like everyone was proving their pro-Trump stripes by hating on this teaser. But for me it was kind of great, because ... anyone who had any doubts or confusion about the need for [the series], I point you to many comment sections and so-called think pieces that prove its existence. 

On what it was like to finish filming the series on Election Day 2016

Oh man, that was a tough day. That was a really tough day, 'cause it was in the back of everybody's mind. And as the updates were rolling in and we were struggling to finish this day, I mean it was so crazy. But I will say that getting up the next day and going right into post-production, I realized that we were commenting on the same America. It was almost as if subconsciously we were sort of preparing for this. You know, we purposely refrain from mentioning a specific president, but there are certain sort of references to the country and to things in society and to things like a "blacklash." We talk about all of that stuff in the show, and so I was just really proud that the universe guided me to talk about these things before I knew just how much we needed to talk about them.



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