“Intense.” It’s easily the one word to describe “Chapter V” of Justin Simien’s Netflix series, Dear White People.
“It was intense, bro,” says Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, who stepped in to direct the episode, which is a largely satirical take on racial tension at a predominately white Ivy League-type campus told through the eyes of black students upended when campus security is called to a party and pulls a gun on a black student named Reggie (Marque Richardson).
The scene comes near the end of an episode that sees Reggie, a student activist, and his friends journey (via several enjoyable walk-and-talks) through campus from one event to the next before arriving at a party where he and a white student (Nolan Funk) get into a racially charged confrontation over singing the N word along to a Future song. As tensions rise and the music dies down, a campus security officer arrives, demanding to see Reggie’s ID (and not that of the white student). When Reggie initially refuses, a gun is pulled and pointed directly into his face. While defiant in the moment, Reggie is later seen in tears, sitting alone behind the closed door of his dorm room while his friend, Samantha (Logan Browning), knocks on the door to ask if he’s OK.
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“I wish it wasn’t necessary, but it is very necessary commentary on the state of American life right now,” Jenkins says of the episode that continues to dismantle the notion of a postracial America in the era following the election of President Barack Obama, but also addresses the very timely issue of police brutality. (“I mean, sh*t, it’s 2017 and a kid just got killed in Texas,” the filmmaker told The Daily Beast, referring to 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.)
“This show is a reflection of so many things,” Jenkins says, while addressing bigoted commentary and reaction that initially followed the release of the series’ trailer. “It really is an invitation, not a provocation.”
Admittedly, the filmmaker had no idea what he was getting into. Fans of each other on social media, Simien -- who wrote and directed the 2014 Sundance hit from which the Netflix show is adapted -- and Jenkins hadn’t met until the former attended an early rough cut screening of Moonlight. A couple of weeks later, Simien reached out to Jenkins about directing an episode of Dear White People written by Chuck Hayward and Jack Moore.
Of course, this was well before Moonlight was on track to be nominated for (and eventually win) Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars. Yet, even then, Jenkins knew he would have limited time to do it -- 10 days, in fact -- as he busily traveled from one film festival to the next on the awards season circuit to promote Moonlight. But having seen Jenkins’ directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy, Simien was confident he could handle it. “It’s going to be a really easy episode … It’ll just be people walking and talking,” Jenkins recalls Simien telling him before getting the script and realizing: “Oh, this is not what this is.”