Dear White People is unapologetic in its examination of the complexities of identity for Black millennials and it’s just the way creator and director Justin Simien envisioned it.
The show vividly portrays the issues of race, class, and sexuality against the backdrop of a predominantly white Ivy League university where debunking the myth of a “post-racial” society is a daily occurrence. For three seasons, the satirical series has explored the lives of Winchester University’s Black students as they navigate the challenging terrain of social injustice, cultural bias, white fragility, academia, and activism in the millennial age. Starring Logan Browning, Marque Richardson, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, and Ashley Blaine Featherson, Dear White People in its own unique and hilarious way, has given the world a tutorial of just how deeply white supremacy is interwoven into the fabric of American culture.
For an epic send-off, the Black students of Winchester are bringing all the 90s vibes that we can stand for an unforgettable farewell.
Set as a musical, the last season just may be Simien’s most ambitious creative undertaking. According to the seasons’ synopsis viewers can expect “an Afro-futuristic and 90s-inspired musical event” that is “set against the backdrop of senior year at Winchester as well as a not-so-distant, post-pandemic future.”
EBONY caught up with Simien and discussed with him the legacy of the show, the importance of Black artists finding joy, and why racism never surprises him.
EBONY: Dear White People is arguably your most well-known artistic expression. How hard was it to make the decision that this was the last season?
Justin Simien: It was very difficult but maybe not in the way that it sounds. This season was difficult. It was like a “dark night of the soul.” I have to say, I’m so grateful for it because on the other side of it I did find my joy again. I did fall back in love with what I’m doing. I feel like some of the characters end up at the end of the season, refreshed and renewed, but not lying to myself either about how hard it is, how hard it gets. So it was very difficult in that way. The actual act of leaving the show behind was not as hard because it was a decision I had made. When we got the call that we were being renewed but we were being renewed for one last season, I made peace with it in that moment. Part of me was happy to end the run so that I can now do some other things, tell some other stories, or make space for another storyteller to play in this world.
As the final curtain call for the series, you decided to create the last season as a musical. What was the inspiration behind the idea?
The show always comes from a personal place and frankly I needed a big idea to pull me through the making of the series. As a show that has always taken place in this kind of heightened reality where weird things can happen sometimes. We thought a musical could work well. We’ve always wanted to do a musical since season one.
I wanted to do something that was challenging but I also needed to do something that I just felt in my body? The show is heady and it deals with a lot of topics that can get very talky. So the thing that is always important for me is to be honest about what my heart was saying at the time and I just kept seeing them singing. I kept seeing them putting on this show. I kept thinking about how we all are kind of putting on a show and how sometimes that brings us joy and sometimes it doesn’t. I kept circling around this musical thing and yeah, we just went big.
You picked some classic 90s songs for it. Too Short’s “Gettin’ It,” was a personal favorite of mine. How did the writers and cast react to the musical theme?
We would come up with a bunch of songs that we just loved and we knew that we couldn’t necessarily get the rights to everything. So we came up with these scenarios and we didn’t write to the songs but we wrote to where we want to take the characters. Sometimes we’d be stuck on something and we couldn’t get it and sometimes we had no idea. Then, Morgan Rhodes, our music supervisor would come in and be like, “How about this,” and we’d be like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing.” So it was a group effort between me, all the writers, and Morgan. Then the actors had all these interesting touchpoints to other musical things. Logan, very famously, was on a big dance show. Ashley Blaine Featherson has been singing for years. And Marquis Richardson is a trained tap dancer and singer. We didn’t know just how rich the well of talent was but we knew we had a few heavy hitters that we knew could do it well and pick it up. Because it was the 90s, we weren’t confined to any one style. We could embrace hip hop, pop, deep soulful ballads, you know, the whole gamut of 90s Black music. We found a spot for everybody to fit in.
Did the musical direction help you bring closure to the storylines of the characters?
As I began by researching musicals or what they call backstage musicals like Singing In the Rain, Sister Act Two, which was a favorite growing up, it felt like it aligned with the bigger story that I wanted to tell. If I’m going to tell a story about racism or if that involves racism, you can’t end on a good note because racism is never over. It’s an ongoing struggle. With the cast, I wanted to find a way for the characters to make peace with the ongoing struggle and acknowledge the places where they’ve succeeded. I think the season ends up being a lot about us celebrating our wins. We must celebrate our wins. Yes, we must acknowledge our setbacks but if we can’t find joy, if we can’t make music out of the misery, for lack of a better word, then we can’t sustain ourselves. As we began working on the last season, I wasn’t having the best time with “good ole Hollywood.” I said to myself, “What’s the thing that’s gonna get me out of bed every frickin morning, no matter what’s going on?” Thank God because I had no idea at the time that a little lockdown was around the corner.
Speaking of lockdown, since the last season, so much has happened that’s changed our world. You were at work on the show during a global pandemic, mass protests of the killings of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, and others. How did all of those factors affect the creative process?
We were working on the show before, during, and after everything. We started writing around Thanksgiving of 2019 and our writer’s room had been going for some weeks when the pandemic struck. We continued to write during quarantine and we began shooting towards the end of 2020 through the beginning of this year. It was a very long haul. And of course, psychologically, everybody, myself included, became a little crazier each day because of the pandemic. But then the George Floyd protests, Brianna Taylor, and everyone else which, of course, affects Black people a lot more deeply. That was a lot to work through.
Throughout the run of the show, how surprised were you with how spot-on the series has been with what was happening in the country?
I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but some of our worst predictions have come true pretty regularly. I talked about Trump acting like a dictator in the pilot that I wrote for the show, which no one has seen or read. I wrote that before we even were greenlit. So to see things like that happen is kind of disheartening. People like Candace Owens, or our love-hate relationship with celebrities, There are so many big and little things that we sort of make fun of that and it ends up just being a reality. I think part of that is because we always wanted to make a truthful show that might not always make you feel good, especially when it comes to racism. I just felt that, if the show is going to be super surreal, crazy, and entertaining, we got to at least be telling the truth about racism. The more you dig into the truth about racism, the more you realize that there’s an issue here that is multi-generational in the making and it has to be multi-generational in the solving. It’s not like it’s something that’s just gonna be one and done from any event, any protest, any movement. So, I can’t say I’m that surprised because I certainly felt this moment coming.
Are there plans for any spin-offs of the series?
Haha! I can’t talk about that. I can say that there are no Dear White People shows in the works on Netflix. I will say that with the creative team behind the show, there are many of us in different clusters. We might be bringing the world of Winchester back at some point in the future.
What do you want the legacy of Dear White People to be?
I think that the through-line of the show is how capitalism plays a part in how we are taught to think. If I’m educated, if I have power and money, that’ll somehow help me to overcome all of this stuff. As our characters find out this season, that’s not necessarily true for Black people. I think the legacy of the Dear White People is truth-telling about racism and Black identity.
Lastly, I recently read that you’re at work on a project of a biopic of Sylvia Robinson, founder of Sugar Hil Records. What about her story intrigues you?
The crazy thing about it is that I live for stories about people who are kind of invisible or who have been overlooked by popular culture. The fact that we owe the biggest industry of our time, hip-hop, which is basically all music now, to a Black woman is incredible to me. I mean, there’s not a genre of music that you listen to that does not have a trap, even in country music. Sylvia Robinson brought that to the masses. She helped launch that industry. To me, that’s such an exciting thing to try to put a light on. So yeah, that is something that’s very close to my heart.