Simien and writer Jaclyn Moore talked to ET about the show's final installment, which premiered on Netflix on Sept. 22.
The fourth and final season of Dear White People is an ultimate nod to the iconic music of the '90s, and there's a good reason for it.
From Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" to a grunge rendition of NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye," the last 10 episodes of the Netflix series follows our beloved undergraduates as they look back at the most formative year of their lives. Described as an Afro-futuristic and '90s-inspired musical event, the season chronicles the trials and tribulations of the core group as they put together Winchester's Varsity Show, an annual student-produced and satirical musical about the school. It's the first time the predominantly Black residents of Armstrong-Parker House are writing the show, thus the '90s theme.
When asked what inspired the decision to make the entire season a musical, creator Justin Simien told ET that the idea was partially born from an inherent need.
"Part of it is, that's what was in my soul. That's what I needed to do at the time," he explained, noting that sometimes an idea will "just occur" to him and he'll figure out why it should happen later on. "But the intellectual smarty-pants answer is that the '90s is such a clear flashpoint for Black culture, particularly with music. You see it in film, too. We were coming out of the post-Do the Right Thing moment of Black film and, suddenly, there were three Black filmmakers working in Hollywood at the same time. And it feels like this big cultural renaissance, but at the same time, once you get to the end of the '90s, what was the renaissance has now become a bit of a trap."
"There are actually fewer Black artists getting to come into all of these various spaces that felt so open at the top of the '90s, but also, you realize that all of this stuff that felt new and celebratory and exciting and bold, it now becomes the lane that everyone's stuck in," he added.
"And I wanted to really talk about, how does our enthusiasm as marginalized people, our passion for activism, our joy in doing what we want to do with our lives, how does that so quickly turn into commodification? How did we go from doing what we love, doing what we do because we love it, to doing what we do because we have to pay our rent? When does that trade off happen? And the '90a felt like a really perfect kind of subconscious background play sandbox to sort of deal with some of those issues."
That question plays heavily into the themes woven throughout the season, especially as viewers see how the characters' futures play out. As Sam (Logan Browning), Lionel (DeRon Horton), Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson-Jenkins), Reggie (Marque Richardson), Troy (Brandon P. Bell), Coco (Antoinette Robertson) and Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) take the first real steps into adulthood, they encounter the harsh realities of turning their passion into careers. It's a sobering experience for the group, and their hopes and dreams become a trap of crushed expectations.
It's a bittersweet yet fitting realization for the final installment. "It's like your final year [of college] where you get to have these wonderful moments with the people that you love the most, and you know it's going to end. So, it was bittersweet," Robertson told ET. "But it was nice, because there's so many different shows that never got a second season or much less a fourth. So I'm just grateful I got to be on this journey with all these people that I love so very much."
For Bell, the final season was enough time for the series to impart the message of valuing important relationships in life, "no matter the ups and downs that you may experience, coming together and just respecting and valuing those who have been around you and in your corner, through the ups and downs, and kind of cherishing that."
As with previous chapters, the final season juggles the characters' joys and anguish, with the twist of musical interludes to provide insight into everyone's psyche.
"It's a tough needle to thread, wanting to both be honest about the tragedy and trauma while also not falling into the trope of just giving more tragedy, just depicting tragedy," co-showrunner and executive producer Jaclyn Moore told ET.
Echoing her, Simien explained that each season "is about one idea" that production then tries to echo in everyone's stories. This season's idea, the two revealed, was how Black people turn their trauma into profit.
"That's what we all have to do, isn't it? We take our thing and we keep telling stories about our thing until we can figure out how to make it work for us in this space," Simien reasoned. "But when does that start to become really personally re-traumatizing and how do I deal with all of that? Once I've made it, I still have this part of me that's dead inside because I've had to bury it in order to get on. That was the one thing, frankly, I was feeling in life when I entered the season."
He adds that every character's journey follows that thread, through their own prism and lens. "And when you just do that, it turns out we can talk about all sorts of things that are going on. It turns out that the Black struggle for liberation really is a universal thing that applies to everybody, no matter what area they're being marginalized in the system," he said. "And we kind of do that every season."
The final 10 episodes of Dear White People are now available on Netflix.