‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien to Racist Trolls: You’re in for a Surprise
The filmmaker-turned-Netflix showrunner thinks his racist trolls will identify with the black characters in ‘Dear White People.’
If there is one creative endeavor that exemplifies the power of television over film in the streaming age, it’s Dear White People.
Made in just 19 days on a budget of around $1 million, the film was a modest success by indie film standards, grossing a total of $4.4 million. But as writer/director Justin Simien tells The Daily Beast, his 10-episode series of the same name is poised to have a far greater cultural impact when it starts streaming on Netflix this Friday.
Simien got a taste of what that reach will mean when Netflix released a 30-second teaser for Dear White People earlier this year and alt-right trolls seized on it, launching a Twitter campaign to #BoycottNetflix. The filmmaker knew that his show’s title was controversial, but he never saw this type of angry backlash coming. It was yet another example of just how emboldened the openly racist denizens of the internet have become in the age of Trump.
Now that viewers will finally be able to see more than a deliberately provocative preview, Simien says he hopes those who accused Netflix of engaging in “anti-white discrimination” will give it a chance. “I actually think a lot of the trolls will really identify with the show,” he tells me, given that it tells the stories of “chronically underheard” black students at the fictional Ivy League Winchester University.
By expanding the project from one stand-alone piece to 10 distinct half-hour episodes, Simien has broadened the scope of his vision, delivering a final product that is both funnier and more thought-provoking than his original film. Trolls beware.
The show feels even more relevant now than when the film premiered. Do you think it will be received differently from when the film came out just three years ago?
Yeah. I mean, for one, probably more people will see the show day one than ever saw the movie, just thanks to the nature of Netflix. I made the movie and I made the show to start conversations, which means that we avoid giving all of the answers to these problems and you kind of can’t help but leave the show both entertained and a little perplexed, a little uncomfortable. So I’m sure it will be like the movie but just sort of louder on all ends. I’m sure people will feel gratified that they have seen themselves [represented]. I’m sure people will take issue with some of the choices that the characters make, but that’s all, in my opinion, part of doing my job as an artist.
I think the other difference is that, when I wrote the movie, we were still culturally in this period where if you were a black person talking about racism, people kind of looked at you funny. Like, what are you complaining about? Even really well-minded liberal people wanted to believe that we were past racism because we elected Obama twice. And I think that illusion, I think that’s long gone in the culture. Everyone is very aware that, not only do we have a race problem, but it’s so pervasive that it affects national and global politics on a scale that I don’t think a lot of people imagined. So I think the show feels more urgent and more vital just because of the times that we’re in. We wrapped production on November 8th, so we knew we were in a different time already, but I don’t know that we knew how bad it was. Again, I think black people had an idea, we knew that people were racist and there were lots of issues in the country, but I don’t think people saw a direct link between racism in America and destabilization on a global political level. I don’t think people were able to make that connection until this election.
Given that you wrapped filming on Election Day, were you making the show imagining that people would see it in a world where Hillary Clinton was president?
I honestly, like most people, assumed — whether you supported Trump or not, most people assumed that she was going to be president. I mean, Russia seemed to have assumed it. The Republican-led Congress assumed it. Everyone was preparing for a Hillary Clinton presidency. I think we very consciously tried not to mention who the president would be, because we knew there was a chance that she wouldn’t be. But in a weird way, I feel like subconsciously we made the show for the Trump era. Watching it back now there are certain moments that are so chillingly accurate that I don’t know what part of our brains that came out of. So yeah, we assumed Hillary would be president, but, we also, you know — I think Dave Chappelle said something similar. I know white people so I don’t know that I was ever completely sure that she was going to win. I was just as shocked and crestfallen as most of the rest of us.
In terms of your creative approach making the series, how did it differ from when you set out to make the film?
I’d already done a lot of thinking about it as a TV show. For me, it was all good stuff. The weight of having to produce an independent movie wasn’t there. And frankly, that is a very heavy weight to carry. We had — not as much time as we would have liked — but we had ample time to both conceive of the show, flesh it out and film it. With the movie, I was just trying to keep the lights on, so to speak. I was broke and we made that movie in 19 days and it was just a rush from start to finish. With the show, we had more resources. So I was able to put really crazy ideas down on paper and take the time to either flesh them out and find a place for them or thoughtfully discard them. I mean, it was just a more thoughtful process because we had more time. We had the resources to make 10 episodes instead of trying to cram a lot into an hour and 45 minutes, which is always a challenge for a multi-protagonist piece and is a lot easier as a TV show.
Yeah, one of the great things that this format allows you to do is explore different episodes from different points of view. What was the benefit for you of taking that approach?
I always thought that the Netflix model, there was opportunity to do things in TV that doesn’t normally work. And one of the things that I love about Robert Altman’s movies is that really, a Robert Altman movie is just a bunch of short films about various people told at the same time. If we look at the entire season as one story, what if each of these half hours we jump into each one of those lives as opposed to trying to jump into everyone’s life in each episode? Just really taking our time to get into the shoes of these characters. And on the road talking to people who had seen the movie, everybody wanted more, everyone wanted to go deeper into everybody. And I thought, what better way than to just tell the entire half hour from one person’s perspective at a time? I found it to be a very satisfying approach, at least for this first season.
One thing that you didn’t get a chance to riff on because it happened so recently is the now infamous Pepsi protest ad, which feels like something that could have happened in Dear White People. What was your reaction when you saw that?
The funny thing is, I wasn’t personally offended by it. I was more offended by how stupid these ad agencies are. It was just such a stupid idea. It wasn’t like, “Oh my God, police violence isn’t being taken seriously.” I didn’t go there with it on a personal level. When I see these movies that come out and take some sort of ethnic concept and put a white person in the middle of it and the studio wonders why it doesn’t work, it’s like, at this point, c’mon! How tone-deaf can you be? It just felt like a really, really dumb mistake given our cultural and political climate. I just thought it was fucking stupid. Of course you’re begging to be mocked by the internet for doing something like that. That would be so obvious to me at every stage of that process. It was more that I didn’t understand how they got to that point where they thought that would be an effective ad campaign. If there was ever a better reason to say hire more black and brown folks, it would be this. I promise you if you had a black woman heading whatever agency put that together, that just would not have happened.
During the Q&A at SXSW, you said you wanted the show to be a “clap back” against Trump’s election. What did you mean by that?
What I meant was, once I had sort of processed my grief over the result of the election — and I’m sure someone will read this and not agree with me politically or whatever — but I was really going through the stages of grief, like a lot of people. But what made me feel better was, as we were editing the show, I was just like, boy, it felt so good to have something artistically at the ready to respond to the times that we’re in. I didn’t have to go back and write something; we already made it. It was already on deck. I found some comfort in that. And when I say response or “clap back,” Dear White People is not about all the evil things that white people do, it’s just that I think that the show attempts to analyze the hidden forces behind these conflicts. If this had happened and I didn’t have something ready to put out artistically, I would have felt even more empty about what happened. So I was just happy that we decided to speak about political things and racial issues that clearly played a factor in the result.
After the whole #BoycottNetflix backlash happened when the teaser dropped, you responded with a really nuanced and thoughtful piece on Medium. Why was it important to you to respond in such a forceful way?
I think it was because I was just so taken aback by it. It was such an outrageous response to what honestly was a pretty innocuous date announcement. And it was so much bigger than anything we experienced with the movie, it just felt like something different was happening in the world. And it wasn’t so much that I was hurt by it or offended by it, I was just really like, “What is going on?” My boyfriend, who’s definitely more up on how technology works, explained to me how trolling has evolved since putting out the movie. How web brigading and all of these fake accounts, how organized they are and a lot of the Russian bot programs that are now part of the U.S. political Twitter atmosphere. And once I started to understand what I was seeing and facing, I just couldn’t not respond to it. It’s not new to attempt to vilify the minority that speaks about their oppression. That’s not a new thing. But the ways in which they did it were so organized and nefarious, I had to come to terms with that. As it so happens, I’m a writer, so the best way I can come to terms with anything is to write about it.
Did Netflix reaffirm their support for you and the show after that? Or was that even necessary?
It wasn’t necessary but it was very welcome. And yes they did. They were very supportive. And they did a lot of research too on what happened exactly and their conclusions were very similar to mine and I just never really felt any wavering in their support for us. They definitely let us know that, and it was great. It was thrilling actually to feel like we were a part of something, culturally speaking, that was clearly touching a nerve that needs to be touched repeatedly, I guess.
Finally, if any of those trolls were to actually watch the show, what do you hope they would get out of it?
I actually think a lot of the trolls will really identify with the show, because we sort of put everyone on blast. No one is really safe from the satire of the show. So I think they’d be surprised by politically who and what they align with on the show. But also ultimately the show is about a group of people who feel clinically underheard. And if you’re willing to create a hundred fake profiles and pull mugshots off of Google as your profile picture, clearly you feel chronically underheard. So I actually think that they, strangely enough, will identify not only with these characters, but with black people in general in ways that will surprise them. And I do think a lot of them will watch the show, because a lot of them are curious. I have a feeling there will be a lot of secret views on Netflix from these people.
You’ll never know, but I hope you’re right.
They may never admit it, but I have a feeling.