Three seasons into his Netflix original series, Dear White People, writer-producer-director Justin Simien isn’t afraid of growth — and he isn’t afraid of breaking out of the boxes we’ve come to expect.
“Well listen, you know what my therapist tells me?” he told Out. “Giving people something other than what they expected is kinda my thing. I do it to you every time. If you think about it, each season of the show, including the first one, is a little like, ‘Oh, okay. We're only going to get one character’s [perspective] each [episode] Okay. All right.’ Season two, ‘Oh, it's a history lesson. Okay. All right.’”
“And this season is just another example of that,” he said. “I think that's kind of my thing. Expecting the unexpected is probably the best way to approach any Justin Simien endeavor.”
For the uninitiated, Dear White People — based on Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name — follows a group of Black students at the predominantly white Winchester University. When we ended season two, the major cliffhanger rested with two of our leads, Sam (Logan Browning) and Lionel (DeRon Horton), who abruptly discovered a secret society, the Order of X, with a long history on their campus. So, it’s safe to say I thought we were about to get a caper of sorts for season three. But Simien had other thoughts.
We spoke to the young creator days before the release of season three, now streaming on Netflix.
If you had to describe this season in three words, how would you do it?
What? In three words? See it August 2nd. How about that? No, no, I have a better three words: Watch my shit. That's the three words. That's the tweet.
I love it. Three seasons in, how does the show for you match up with what the original vision was when you were just putting together a concept trailer for the film?
I think season three is the version of it I always wanted to make, but never had the cultural cachet or the money or the wherewithal to do. We've been in ‘establishing ourselves’ mode for the first few seasons, and the movie was my first thing ever. So now, it's a more expansive version of Winchester. We really own our sort of Simpsons kind of inspiration where it's like 14 million characters and they all have their own ecosystems and universes that play together.
I still wanted to keep to some of our rules. Like, you’ll notice in our show that we never cut cleanly from one storyline to another and there's always a person that has to bring us into each of the storylines. I wanted to keep some aspect of how we sort of stick to one point of view at a time because I wanted to show how interconnected all of these different people are even when they're not aware that they're actually influencing each other. I felt like there was something to say about that too. But I've never been able to say because we've been kind of in the silos of “This is a Lionel episode, this is a Troy episode.”
And the other thing is, it was just fun to get the ensemble together more often too [in this season]. So, I think in a lot of ways this is the version of it that I was first excited to make back in 2005 when I was just thinking about this. This season is kind of what I thought I was going to make so long ago.
As I’ve said to some of the cast members, I thought we were going to get one thing considering the end of season two. But y’all took a left turn on me!
You mean with the Order of X of it all? Well, that was you all. You all decided the next season was going to be [about the] secret society. I never said that. [laughs] It was kind of after the fact thing that we realized how obsessed the children were with the Order of X of it all. But the fact is, we had a choice to make in the second episode: Did we really want to make a spy caper thing in the middle of this or did we really want to get into character. And it just wasn't as interesting frankly.
There's a lot that we want to do in that storyline. But there's realities, man. Like [leader of the Order is played by] Giancarlo Esposito. You can't get him in every episode of the show. [laughs] And there's this shit that was going on in our lives and in the world. We were dealing with the collapse of our Mount Rushmore — Bill Cosby, gone, R. Kelly, gone, and Michael [Jackson], suspect. Everybody was kind of crumbling and I didn't know how to make a season where we're just back in the activism and back in the doing of it all without taking a minute to reflect.
I was also feeling like, you've got to be one way as a Black person to make it. You've got to perfect your image and perfect your brand to make it very simple for white people to understand you. But once you make it, once you're on the other side of that little chasm. Well, then all of the things that liberated you start to feel like you're in a prison of your own personality. Like, people expect you to be just as funny and Black and gay and whatever your thing is. People want that out of you every single time, like a jukebox. But that doesn't really allow you to grow.
Maybe we'll get a fourth season and really give you all the Order of X as deeply as, I guess, everybody thought we were going to give this time.
One of the things I like about this season is around Lionel's character where we get to see a little bit more of him leaning into his Black queerness and sexuality. Why was it important for you to lean into that as the next level of his character?
Well because Lionel is like me in 2002. I sensed completely and I felt so comfortable in my Black, gay body and the way I navigated the world. Because Lionel has just been dipping his toe in the waters of homosexuality. And the Black gays, they throw shade at him in that first season.
That's how I've always felt, but I [didn’t have the] opportunity to explore queerness and Winchester and how queerness intersects with whiteness and Blackness because Lionel has always been a bit at a distance from it. And so, I just wanted to throw him in so we can really get into the meat. That's a criticism I got for the movie that I always wanted to make right. Because I always wanted to talk about it. It just wasn't character appropriate at the time for Lionel to take us on a tour of being gay. He barely knew he was gay himself when we first meet him.
And Griffin Matthews, he plays a character named D’Unte [based on a real person who] was so ahead of his time, the kids just were not ready for him. He was so gay, it was just so clear you were dealing with a queer boy. I don't think his family was totally ready for it. I don't think the world was ready for it. We lost him in his early 20s. And I think part of that is because I don't know that he ever really felt accepted here. I wanted to just give voice to that, that joy and the way in which he celebrated who he was. I wanted to almost bust Lionel's cherry. And you can't throw someone into the deep end without them little floaties That D’Unte character is sort of leading him into the dark woods. [laughs]
This season, the show becomes very self-referential, especially with a character you play. When I first saw it, it felt very Tyler Perry to me, which was interesting because there's that line from the movie about him.
Well that's exactly right, because it's more complicated than that. I never meant [that line from the movie] as a shot at Tyler Perry. But after I made the movie, and I was on the other side of that Q&A line and suddenly my stuff wasn't gay enough for anybody and my stuff wasn't Black enough and it wasn't this and it wasn't that — and people liked the movie, I'm not saying that. There was a lot of praise but I'm an artist so obviously I don't feel understood and obviously the criticisms are the things that stay. With the movie I was like, “Oh God, now I get it.”
I was so mad at Tyler for not showing me myself. But that wasn't Tyler's job. Tyler's job was to speak to his audience. Tyler's job was to show up as Tyler, and who the fuck am I to tell him that he's supposed to tell my story? I've got to tell my story. I had that conclusion back in 2013 right after we started screening the movie, but there's this assumption that my work is sort of anti- Tyler Perry but it's not. A lot of it came out of a phone call that [Tyler Perry and I] had. It's such a mind screw, you know, because who would have thought that Tyler Perry, of all people, would be pouring into me like this. I was just so grateful for it.
And I always had this weird, fanfiction idea of him coming to campus and telling Sam, who represents me to a certain degree in terms of at least how she thinks about Black entertainment — she represents the way I was before I made my first movie — some things. And that's really what sparked it. So, I play Jerry Skyler who sort of acts like me and has a real perspective on the work that he's doing. But then he also plays Mr. Griggins who is this antebellum, stock character brought to life in the 20th and the 21st century. I just felt like I needed a space for that argument and I felt like if it was anybody but me playing it, it would just be parody, it would just be spoof. I didn't want that. I wanted it to be like a handcrafted thank you note, an “I see you” note and I want my audience to see you and why you're important and why we shouldn't look down at what you're doing. That's why, that's why I had to play it.
The season, per usual, tackles a number of different topics. Any in particular that you want to make sure audiences don’t miss?
I don't know that you'll miss it, but I think the hero worship thing is at the heart of it. Like racism, it’s about shame. It's about transference of shame from one group of immigrants to the people that they stole, frankly. And we carry that shame for them and we pass it on to each other. And one of the ways in which it operates is that deep down inside, if you're Black and American and you're paying attention, you have felt like you ain’t shit at some point in your life. And the reason why you can show your Black face to these whites in these white spaces is probably because you saw somebody that reminded you of yourself or looked like you that was doing it too and was doing it well. You wanted to be like that person. And when you show up in those rooms and it turns out that that person is not exactly who you thought they were, what happens? I don't know that we actually have a guide book of what to do next.
We will defend that person tooth and nail. With all the evidence in front of our faces that they done did something, we'll defend that person until a documentary on Lifetime is made. We don't know how to process it. We're not prepared for that because [that person is] not just an entertainer. It's something weird and now when we listen to their music or watch their films or whatever, it's feels a little weird, though it's a lot deeper than that for us. That is our hero up there. That is the reason why we're here up there that y'all are throwing stones at and that we are watching crumble. It is a deep loss to come to terms with some of this stuff. I really just wanted to walk us all through that, through how I was experiencing it, how all the writers were experiencing it, how the cast was experiencing it … All of the tangents we go off into, all connect back to that one idea. What are you going to do when the reason why you're there, the reason why you're in this space, comes up short? That's really what I'm putting a lens on this time.