Why 'Dear White People' Creator Justin Simien Can't Ignore White Supremacy in His Work (Exclusive)

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Justin Simien at the SAGindie Filmmakers Lunch 2020
Fred Hayes/Getty Images for SAGindie

First launched on Netflix in 2017, Dear White People has proven to be a barometer for the state of race relations in the United States during its initial three-season run. Creator Justin Simien’s series, which follows the lives of several Black students at a predominantly white Ivy League-type school and has been renewed for a fourth and final season, is an expansion of the 2014 critically acclaimed independent film of the same name, which first lifted the veil on the idea of post-racial America after the election of President Barack Obama. 

The film’s story culminated with white students wearing blackface to a campus party, which is where the series picks up the narrative. And in the years since, Simien has used a unique blend of comedy and commentary to simultaneously predict and react to issues of police brutality, the cross section of the #MeToo movement and prominent Black voices, cultural appropriation, alt-right trolling and the persistence of white supremacy. 

And in the wake of the current Black Lives Matter movement, which was renewed by the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people, Dear White People has seen its viewership increase by over 300 percent and has been listed by publications as something created by a Black person, speaking to Black experiences that everyone should be watching right now. “Netflix doesn’t release numbers but I know that the show is one of the most-watched Black ensembles on TV,” Simien tells ET. “And to then see on top of that this increase -- it’s validating on one hand, it’s infuriating on the other because, unfortunately, these aren’t new things.”

He continues, adding, “What happened to George Floyd is not a new phenomenon in this country. Racism didn't start in June. But it’s also nice to know that in a time like this, where things are so chaotic... it feels nice to know that I made something for this moment that can speak to this moment.”

But Simien clarifies that Dear White People is first and foremost a character-driven franchise about self and identity. “It [deals with] the human conflict between the roles that society decides we must play and who we might have been otherwise,” he says, adding: “The next level of what the show is about is, frankly, systemic racism and the way that functions.”

And in a lot of ways, that’s what makes the show both timely and timeless. “We’re really trying to tune in to what’s going on in the country,” he continues of his writing team’s approach to crafting each season. “A lot of people just aren’t really paying attention to it as closely as we are. And so it appears, like, almost prophetic. But I have to say, if things go well, it hopefully will be a time capsule.”

As for what Dear White People will tackle next, Simien is not releasing any specific details about the plot, except that he has big plans for the final volume of the story, which he sees as the summation of everything that the franchise has been about. “You’re going to see us really delving into, of course, more issues of systemic racism. But also how possible is it really to lead a civil rights movement in such a capitalist place? We’re going to get into some of those questions,” he teases. 

Netflix

While fans will have to wait a little bit longer for the new season, Simien’s second directorial feature, Bad Hair, is slated to debut on Hulu in October as part of the streaming platform’s Halloween-curated content. The horror film quite literally tells the story of a killer weave as an ambitious young woman pursues her dreams of becoming an on-air star of a late-1980s music video TV show.

In addition to starring newcomer Elle Lorraine, who, based on early reviews, is posed for a breakout moment, the ensemble cast features Blair Underwood, Jay Pharoah, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Lena Waithe, Michelle Hurd, Robin Thede and Vanessa L. Williams. “It was really a pleasure putting the cast together,” Simien says, adding that everyone who joined shared in the same deep, passionate conversation about “what this movie would mean and how it will serve the social conversation happening right now.” 

While there’s lots of fun to be had by watching Bad Hair, “at the end of the day, what is the movie critiquing? It’s critiquing systems of white supremacy,” Simien says, adding: “I sort of can’t help that as an artist. Like, that is to me one of the most urgent issues facing us. So, it’s a fun movie. But like Dear White People, which is also very serious and it’s about something that I think is actually horrifying in American society to this day.” 

When it comes to that through line that connects both projects, Simien is just following his instincts. “The way white supremacy has permeated society, and the way it functions is so subversive, it's undermining to everybody. Not just Black people, but white people as well and to our nation and to democracy and our livelihood,” he says. “And, you know, it needs to be talked about. It needs to be talked about from points of views that specifically have not been able to talk about it over the years.”

Simien concludes by saying, “It’s hard for me to think of something else more important to talk about right now.”

 

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