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“I Was Taken Aback by the Volume of Vitriol”

Justin Simien has been down this road before. The director’s new Netflix series, ‘Dear White People,’ is already stirring up controversy, much like his 2014 film of the same name. Here, he discusses internet hate and his transition to TV.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

“Had I made a terrible miscalculation? Had I doomed my film and career to obscurity because I dared to put the words ‘white’ and ‘people’ next to one another in my title?”

So wondered Justin Simien, the young black director of Dear White People, when his film’s title began to attract negative attention in 2014. Not only from enraged white people, according to an essay Simien published on Medium in February, but black audiences, too, who were puzzled that Simien would go out of his way to address a white audience and not a black one.

In fact, “Dear White People,” the title, is the name of a deliberately provocative college radio show hosted by the movie’s heroine, Sam White. Sam takes to the airwaves to spit knotty jeremiads against the inconsistent racial politics of white (and black) students on campus. Those politics, and all their messiness, were the subject of the movie — and it’s the subject of Simien’s new show of the same name, out on Netflix on April 28.

The show and the movie are much the same: groups of white and black students at the fictional Ivy League–esque Winchester University, navigating the battle lines of race, class, sexuality, and gender — always all at once. As expected, the show has a bigger, more complex story line than the movie could. Altogether, it’s a project that directly invokes Spike Lee’s seminal black college movie School Daze, but in some ways it’s more complicated. The 33-year-old Simien is much more attuned to college life today, with its new social technologies and increased diversity.

We caught up with Simien to discuss making the show, transitioning from film to television, and making provocative art about race in 2017.

Dear White People has attracted a lot of online attention. As a black critic but also as a black consumer, I’m curious to know what it’s like to be a black creator who makes a show for Netflix that has a trailer go up on YouTube, and the internet becomes very racist. How do you handle that?

I think the first time, with the movie, I was really hurt because I knew the title would be a little provocative, but I just wasn’t prepared for it to be the subject of people’s hate like that. I think by the time the teaser trailer launched for the show, I had already kinda gone through that, so I wasn’t hurt by it. I was taken aback by the volume of vitriol and the way it was really well organized, and the proliferation of fake accounts and weird manipulations that people have come up with online. That part was kind of weird. It took me aback.

But the truth is that it proves the point of the show in a way that the show alone could never do. I think it’s a meta thing to not only have a show that’s about all these subjects but also in real time is sort of like proving its point. So I actually think it’s cool. And I actually, as an artist and a storyteller who’s constantly trying to wrap my brain around these issues, think it’s really very rich. I have a lot of research at my fingertips because I can immediately look and try to get in the heads of these people and try to figure out which profiles are real and get into all this weird alt-right culture that they’ve developed.

As a storyteller, it’s very interesting to me because these are all kinds of things that are part of the conversation that I’m trying to have, and all things that I can incorporate better now that I know them better. And I don’t know, I just built a callus around it, and I think the fact that these people project so much onto marginalized communities [shows] that’s really about them.

I think a bunch of people that never would have watched the show anyway talking so loudly about it online frankly, from a publicity standpoint, is really good. But I also think that the point of the show is to bring to light a lot of things that were once kept in secret, and unfortunately, one of those things is the lives of black people — like the actual human, intersecting lives of black people. But another one of those things is the depth and pervasiveness of racism in the country. So, yeah, I think anyone with a conscience, reading these YouTube comments or going online, I think anyone is horrified.

One of the protagonists of the show is a filmmaker. It’s particularly 2017 for a bunch of people to organize protesters around hitting the dislike button on YouTube. You seem to be interested in the media that people use to express themselves, politically or however else.

Yeah, definitely, because these things make up our culture and our culture is really just a bunch of stories that we tell ourselves over and over again. Even the so-called boycott of Netflix, which didn’t really exist but existed in theory, they were able to create the sense that it existed enough for several articles to be written about it despite the fact that there was no actual boycott of Netflix. And that to me is really interesting, that we really can create these false narratives and put them into our culture and tell ourselves these stories that are just lies. Our capacity to do that seems to have increased in recent years. And certainly the technology and the ability to create all of these accounts, that’s helped, but it’s very interesting to me.

I’m curious where you see yourself in that conversation. What do you want Dear White People to say to people?

I think my primary job as an artist is to get people to see themselves in my characters, and that is political to me because a lot of times, black people are not really seen as human beings. We talk about intersections like, Oh, I’m at the intersection of black and gay, or female and black, or whatever it is, but that’s just another way of saying human beings. When you’re watching Big Little Lies, you don’t say, “Oh, this woman’s at the intersection of being a redhead as well as being a woman as well as being an abused.” You just see her as a human and you immediately imprint upon these characters.

But that doesn’t really happen with black characters as often, so the first goal that I have is to create these people that feel like human beings to where anybody can sort of see themselves in their lives. I think that is a political thing and I think that’s an important thing for me to be doing as an artist. And the other thing that I think is important is to literally bring to the conversation a lot of things that are just not talked about but need to be talked about in order for us to move on.

And the other thing was I needed to experience a kind of catharsis that I think the characters go through in this first season about what it feels like to try to be politically involved or be an activist in the 21st century, but not quite know how to do it and when to stop and when to change tactics. And also to figure out who you are in the midst of all of that. I needed to go on that journey as well as put my characters through that journey. Having 10 episodes, it’s a bigger canvas, and it gives me the room I needed to begin that journey and experience. I couldn’t have done that in a movie to this extent.

I don’t want to use the phrase “world-building” because that feels more like sci-fi, but how did you think about creating this world, set at a college, in which everything — all the intersections you’re talking about — seems to be operating at once?

Yeah, I do think of it as world-building and I’m a total sci-fi nerd, so I encourage the comparison. As much as it is about college life, I’m treating Winchester as a microcosm. It’s very intentionally at a school that doesn’t exist in real life, and it does exist in a bit of a hyper-reality, everything from the colors to the language to the style of the show — it’s just a little bit past reality and the reason for that is because as much as I want to speak to young people, I want to speak to college life, I also want to speak to this country and a lot of the kind of invisible forces that affect us. And I think that a microcosm like a college is perfect for that because I feel like we all kind of try to build our lives around these identities about what and who we are.

But it never is as potent as it is in college because that’s all you have: You don’t have a career yet, you really haven’t started building your family, you don’t have any money, you’re just beginning to have a sense of self-esteem. And so all of these things that we grapple with our whole lives are really, really pronounced in the college experience. So for me, it began as me telling the story of my time at college, when I started writing it way, way back in the day, almost 10 years ago. But now, I really think of it as a microcosm: How can we not only tell a story that feels honest about these characters but say something about the country as a whole, maybe the world? How do we reach beyond the college experience? So a lot of that has to do with what are we trying to say, and how can we get to the core, the truth of it, and put that into the story world in a way that affects the characters in a meaningful way. That’s a lot of what we grapple with in the writers’ room.

I noticed that sexuality was bigger in the series. How did you guys think about the things that you wanted to do in the series that the film couldn’t do?

I had to make so many sacrifices to make the movie. I had a laundry list of things I didn’t get to, to be honest, characters that I felt were underserved, stories that I didn’t think I got to fully explore. I had also gone on a college tour with the movie so I had endless conversations, both confrontational and not, about the movie. I really was filled with story material. We have this issue of racism and the deeper you dig into it, the more there is, and so whenever I’m writing something, I research it and it’s just so much bigger than an average person thinks it is.

And so, to be honest with you, condensing it down to 10 episodes was harder than trying to come up with things to do. We had too many ideas, really, for one season. There’s a whole season of episodes that we could just immediately do with Season 2. I mean, we won’t do that, but there’s so much that we didn’t get to do in this first season. So coming up with ideas was not the hard part. It was really sort of condensing it and trying to then tell a cohesive story and then also experiment with the narrative form. We shift protagonists every episode, so thinking about, “Well, how do we do that and still tell a compelling story?” That was really what we were trying to figure out in this first season. Now that I think we created this space of what the show is, now we can really get into the stuff that we had to put on the back burner.

You’re part of what people are identifying as a wave of black independent filmmaking, but also black directing on TV. From where you’re sitting, what is it like right now in Hollywood, broadly? And particularly for projects like yours, which are, from the title onward, a little bit provocative?

It’s hard. It’s difficult, but it’s also exciting, because I don’t think this opportunity is normal. I don’t think most people get to do a first show right after they made their first movie, let alone a show like this, so it’s not lost on me that this is a moment that is unlike other moments. I think the fact that television, there are different economic models at play, and television is allowed to take narrative risk. It kind of puts TV where film was in the ’70s, or the late ’60s. And so there’s just a lot more opportunity there to be different and say different things, and it’s not lost on me. It is a moment. So there’s a lot of bullshit that still goes on, it’s not easy to make a show like this or certainly not easy to make a movie like this. It’s really tough to do things new in the movies right now. But it is exciting.

For me, I do think that it’s still about self-generating material. I think that if I were just waiting around for a project to come together to attach myself to as a black director, I still think that that is harder. I think that’s still as hard as it’s ever been, but I think that the industry is more open to stories and ideas from unique perspectives if they’re executed well. And that is something. That’s not nothing. It’s a step forward for sure. But you still get called in for the projects that make no sense to you as a director, but the characters happen to be black. It’s still nearly impossible to make an independent film about black people, let alone sell them or convince people that they’ll make money overseas. I mean, all that shit is still going on. But in TV, it does feel a little bit better.

Netflix famously doesn’t really rely on ratings in the way that other networks do. I wonder if you feel freer at Netflix than you might elsewhere.

Honestly, we had a few options, which surprised the heck out of me, but I think that you’re right. Netflix is really involved in the creative process. They don’t really just leave you alone, but what’s really refreshing about it is that they’re never coming from a perspective of audience, they’re never coming from those dumb things that writers hate like, “What’s this market gonna think?” or “How do we work in this product?” or “What are our sponsors?” They don’t care about that stuff, and that stuff never had anything to do with making a good story anyway, so that’s really nice, that when you’re dealing with them as a network, it really is about the creative, it really is about doing something that’s gonna make an impact. All of the business stuff about how we’re gonna sell the show, that stuff really doesn’t come into the conversation. I think any writer will tell you, that’s the most irritating part — having to make changes for really stupid reasons like that, or having to make compromises because of the demographic or because some other show aired that’s like yours, having to do those kinds of pivots. I didn’t have to deal with that stuff. So you know, it’s really great. It’s great that that even existed as an option to me. It’s also very spoiling because I don’t know that I’d want to do it another way.

Last question: What comes after this?

Well, I’m hoping that Season 2 happens. I think it will, but you never know. And in the meantime, I’m still attached to a project with Paramount with Anthony Mackie. I’m currently writing another feature with the same executive-producing team as the film, so I tend to have too much on the plate. I don’t know exactly what will come next, probably the second season of Dear White People, but I definitely am working on a few things.