TV

EXCLUSIVE: Justin Simien Builds on the Momentum of ‘Dear White People’ With Netflix Series

by Stacy Lambe 11:40 AM PDT, April 28, 2017
Photo: Netflix

Dear White People, Justin Simien’s hit Sundance film about race relations on a predominantly white Ivy League-type campus, gets expanded into a 10-episode series for Netflix.

Making its debut on Friday, April 28, the TV adaptation tells the story of racial tension largely through the perspectives of Samantha White (Logan Browning), a biracial student who uses her radio show to dress down white students who appropriate black culture; Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), the dean’s son who is held up to a higher standard; Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), a freshman reporter coming to terms with his sexuality; and Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson), a scholarship student who seeks a higher status quo.

The film, which first debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, was a sharp-tongued take on what many thought of as a post-racial America following the election of President Barack Obama. Picking up where the events -- culminating with a blackface Halloween party -- of the film left off, the TV series expands that conversation in an era of President Donald Trump, accusations surrounding Bill Cosby and the Black Lives Matter movement.

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“It felt more satisfying to continue rather than reboot,” he says, comparing it to superhero film franchises. “One thing I hate about superhero reboots is that we have to get the origin [story] all over again. It’s like, ‘We got it.’ I wasn’t interested in that as a storyteller. I just wanted to keep going.”

But for all the real-world issues surrounding the series, at its core, Simien says, Dear White People is really about what it feels like to be a black face in a white place.

“That’s always been my black experience. I’ve never had the luxury of being surrounded by black people,” he tells ET, refuting any direct comparison to A Different World, the spinoff of The Cosby Show about students attending a historically black college. While A Different World writer and producer Yvette Lee Bowser -- she also created Living Single -- serves as showrunner on Dear White People, that’s where any similarities stop.

“The experience of being a person of color trying to make it in a world that has decided what you are before you entered it -- that particular part of the human experience -- that’s what I wanted to get at,” Simien continues. “I wanted to put characters out there in a culture that are chronically unseen and [tell] stories that are never really serviced in a continuing fashion.”

To do that, Simien breaks up the show into multiple chapters told through the perspectives of various characters (Samantha is “Chapter I,” Lionel is “Chapter II” and so on). “It was really important for me to not present my point of view only,” the filmmaker says of the show’s expanding narratives that will surprise viewers as background characters come to the fore in later chapters.

And when it comes to the new perspectives, Simien credits Star Trek for pushing the show beyond its core characters. “One of my favorite things about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that when they got into later parts of the season, you would sometimes just follow a character,” he explains. “Sometimes you’d just follow a lieutenant you never met before. There’s something fun about that to me. I thought, What if we do that every episode? …That’s certainly something we do in this season and I’m really excited about doing moving forward.”

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