Thursday, January 20, 2022

Justin Simien: ‘Dear White People’ Creator Talks ‘Racist Trolls’ & ‘Magic’ Behind New Netflix Series [EUR Exclusive]

Photo source: Twitter.
Photo source: Twitter.

*“If there’s one thing that “Dear White People” creator Justin Simien wants non-black viewers to take away from his new Netflix series, it’s this: “I just want them to see themselves in the characters.”

EUR/Electronic Urban Report chatted with the writer/director about the satirical series, based on the 2014 film of the same name. Netflix ordered ten, 30-minute episodes for the first season, which premiered April 28.

Simien returned to write and direct several episodes of the series, which is set against the backdrop of a predominantly white Ivy League university and picks up where the acclaimed film left off – following a group of Winchester University’s students of color as they navigate a diverse landscape of social injustice, cultural bias, political correctness (or lack thereof) and activism in the millennial age.

Yvette Lee Bowser (“A Different World,” “Living Single”) serves as co-showrunner and executive producer, while actress Logan Browning (Sam) leads a cast that includes Brandon P. Bell (Troy), Antoinette Robertson (Coco), DeRon Horton (Lionel), John Patrick Amedori (Gabe), Ashley Blaine Featherson (Joelle) and Marque Richardson (Reggie).

“I feel my #1 job as storyteller is to be as specific and as honest as I can about the human experience,” said Simien, “and when you can achieve that it allows people to see, like, ‘Wow, everyone has a human experience just like me, or some of the things I was afraid to say or talk about or admit were going on with me, I’m seeing these characters living,’ and that’s the magic.”

“Dear White People” was his feature debut and it won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Simien, who has been named to Variety magazine’s 2013 “1o Directors to Watch” list, told us that every episode in the Netflix series “has some part of me scattered over each of the stories.”

Check out the rest of our conversation with Justin Simien below.

OTHER NEWS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: ‘Dear White People’ Creator Responds to ‘Racist’ Netflix Boycott (VIDEO)

netflix series
Photo source: Twitter.

Talk about your reaction to the initial response and the acclaim “Dear White People” the film received.

JUSTIN: It certainly surpassed my expectations. When I started making the movie, I just wanted to get it done. I had this idea forever, and it was my first film and it was kind of a by hook or by crook mentality for me. So to see it so well received, and to not only spark conversation, but to have people really hate it too, that kind of was cool. Because the movies that I love had people having conversations about why did that happen, and why he did he do that. Those are the kinds of movies that I love. To not only see it really well received by critics and by audiences, but to see people out there have very different opinions about what it meant, and what it means to them, who the characters were and what it was about. That’s the kind of experience that lends itself to conversation. So yeah, it blew any expectations I had completely out the water.

Why did you want to keep this conversation going about race, identity and sexuality in a scripted series?

JUSTIN: There was just so much more to say. That was the big takeaway. I felt that way when I made the movie. There was just so much that had been left in the vault, so many stories. So many scenes that ended up becoming episodes and so many characters that I wanted to get to — so many other points of views and experiences. Traveling with the movie, doing Q&A’s, I just had a lot more stories to tell. So when Lionsgate approached me and asked me what did I think about doing a series, I was ready. I had a very clear vision of what a series would look like and they were excited by that.

These rich characters you’ve created are deliciously fascinating, most especially Coco and Sam’s rivalry, and the colorism issues. How much of your own experiences are embedded in these characters?

JUSTIN: They all kind of represent some part of my psyche, and the writers too. We’ve had an excellent writers room, and we all poured our hearts into the show and put our own stuff in it. It had to feel real. I wanted you to feel like when you’re looking at these characters you’re seeing things about them that they would never want anyone else to know. I wanted you to see their secrets and what they do when they’re alone, and in order to do that you gotta put your stuff in it. You gotta put your icky, weird stuff that you don’t like to talk about in it. That’s how you make these characters relatable.

netflix series
Photo source: Twitter.

The #LeaveNetflix controversy that erupted when the teaser trailer dropped… what’s your response to folks who think this is an “anti-white” series?

JUSTIN: First of all, I didn’t realize how organized the, I don’t even know what to call them now, but I guess the alt-right, I don’t know… but these sort of like, trolls, that just latch on to what they perceive as liberal, or a social justice warrior agenda, and sort of attack it. I didn’t realize how organized they were, but when you start to peel it back, you realize how few of those accounts actually have a face in the profile, or any followers. You realize this is a small group of people who are faking how big they are, and it’s sad. And the truth is that, no one really boycotted Netflix. Netflix subscribers continued to grow, and exponentially, as they were before the show was announced, and as it did after.

All they really did is they generated a lot more conversation about the show. People who were interested in the show or curious if the show was even necessary, I mean, they saw it right in front of their faces in these comments sections. These racists are so emboldened now and they have no shame. They don’t like to show their faces apparently, but they have no shame in organizing attacks against things they feel threatened by. So I was taken aback by how organized they were (and) how sophisticated these online trolling tools are. But I also thought it was very sad. It showed a lot of weakness and how unheard and marginalized these people feel. Whether they have the right to feel that way or not, and the irony of it all is that, this is show about people who feel marginalized. And I think if you feel that way about any aspect of your life you’re actually going to see yourself in these characters.

So I thought it was interesting but I also knew what show I made. I know what this show is. Netflix knew what the show is. I know what I did and didn’t do. This so-called call for white genocide, and all these outrageous things that people projected onto the series, it just kind of proves the point of the series because it’s none of those things.

justin simien

I feel like the various themes that you explore in the film were served like gumbo, but what I enjoy about the series is that you can take these themes and explore each one separately in ways that help drive the narrative — was that your mission from the start?

JUSTIN: Absolutely. I always wanted to do it where, each episode explores one character at a time. When I set out to make the movie, the first version of it was way too long and the reason it was so long is because each character kinda had their own mini-movie going on, and I just really didn’t have the canvass to do that film in a way that I can in a Netflix series, because it’s designed to be binged and be watched a few episodes at a time. So yeah, that was in my head for a long-long time, before we were even talking to Lionsgate about a series. I always knew that if I were to do a series I’d want to examine some things over and over again from different perspectives. Because we are so multi-faceted, and we often times don’t agree. I wanted people to get under the skin of these characters and get why they don’t agree, why they’ve made enemies of each other, why things aren’t working in their favor. So yeah, that was really part of the plan from start.

The main theme I takeaway from the series is self-identity — each one of these vibrant characters is on a mission to discover who they truly are. Is there a central message woven into the fabric of this series?

JUSTIN: The central theme for me is identity versus self. If you’re part of any marginalized group, how do you figure out who you really are when the society that you’re born into is obsessed with what you are. You’re a Black woman. That’s a what, that’s not a who. The primary mechanism of oppression in this country is demoting human beings to something less than human, and that’s what these characters are going through. Everyone has decided what they are, and college is a microcosm. Yes this is a show about college (but) we go through this experience our entire lives trying to discover who we really are. Who we are versus what we are. Identity versus self. That’s really the anchor upon which we hang every issue of this show and every character arc.

What are you hoping non-black viewers take away from the series?

JUSTIN: I just want them to see themselves in the characters. If I can get people to care about the characters, to invest in their lives, all of the messages of the show, all of the things that we’re saying about racism and oppression and gender and sexuality and all those things, that stuff is going to come across because they care. Because they see these characters as human beings. They don’t see them as troupes or archetypes. They see them as people that they can identify with. So that’s my #1 goal because I know that once we do that the rest will follow. They’re going to be more open to a conversation than maybe they were before the saw the show. And I really think that because it’s Netflix, and it’s not a movie, I think a lot people are going to sample the show and be very surprised by how much it relates to them. And I’m excited to see that happen.

 

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Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is an entertainment reporter with over 15 years of experience working in the film industry in areas including production and post-production, marketing, distribution, and acquisitions. She has worked for legendary film producer Roger Corman, Quentin Tarantino's production team at Miramax, the late Larry Flynt, MTV/ VH1, Hallmark Channel, Paramount, Jim Henson Co., Parade Magazine, and various LA-based companies representing above-the-line talent.

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