Justin Simien, creator of Dear White People, can take it just as well as he can dish it. At the start of our phone conversation about Season 3 of the Netflix series based on his 2014 film, I remind him that I was the one who admitted during last season’s interviews to not enjoying the film or Season 1.
He was amused. “It’s cute that you think you’re the only one that said that to me,” he says with a chuckle. “I like audacity. That’s sort of my playground, too. It cuts both ways, but it’s OK.”
The 36-year-old writer, actor and director from Houston has earned a reputation for being a provocateur, dicing bits of Black culture to examine through a camera’s lens. The fictitious Ivy League college of Winchester is his city in a bottle, where issues of race, gender, sexuality and power commune in a ritual or coordinated chaos. After one film and two seasons, Simien has abandoned the formula for Season 3, allowing his characters to hit the reset button and forge different paths, like college students are prone to do. So fan favorites like Samantha White (Logan Browning) Reggie Green (Marque Richardson) and Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) may look a little unfamiliar, but that’s kind of the point.
“I’ve only seen like four or so,” Simien says of the early Season 3 reviews. “I saw one bad one today. It wasn’t really that bad, but I think she didn’t love that I gave her something other than what she expected. That’s kind of what I do though.”
On the eve of Season 3’s release, I spoke with Simien about the show’s new direction, his intent with parodying certain people and TV shows and if the Order of X is here to save the day.
WARNING: SEASON 3 SPOILERS AHEAD
I binged the whole season last weekend and have to say that it’s my favorite. What was your goal going into it?
JS: Thank you. It’s my favorite, too. I’m not sure if I had a goal in mind. I get really bored doing the same thing over and over again. It’s almost like an anthology series to me. Each season is its own thing. And I just wanted to continue to make a personal show that goes deeper and shows us people and lives we don’t see, and to create space to have some conversations that I think are very fucking difficult to have in real life. That’s always the goal. There’s this conventional wisdom that we’re all taught in film school that in a TV show that you never give your characters what they want and you never let them change. Because whatever works for people about the show, [they stop] being interested. But I get bored with that.
This season feels like the Thor Ragnarok of the trilogy in that everybody is given a new identity. Forget everything you knew before.
JS: I feel like Black folks, we don’t really get to change sometimes. You have to fight so hard for your place in the world. We move through the world with this Personality with a capital P. And it becomes a prison at a certain point, because it’s what people come to expect from you. But that’s not what growth is. That’s not what being human is. Fuck your brand messaging. What’s in your heart right now? You have to be unafraid to shed the skin even if people are into it. It’s life.
You make some jokes about third seasons of Netflix series within the series, but you stop short of breaking the fourth wall. What has informed this unconventional storytelling style for you?
JS: You know what it is, I went to a performing arts high school in Houston, it’s where I’m from, and they made the mistake of teaching a very shady 12-year-old about Bertolt Brecht, which is this playwright who kind of invented that thing where a play is aware that it’s a play and it wants you the audience to know that you’re watching a play. They taught me that too early, and I thought it was so cute. So, it’s in the DNA of everything I do. There’s something magical about the show telling you it’s a show. Then you get to enjoy it as a show but still have a little distance from it to think about it. I think that’s where that comes from.
Your shows within the show are almost as popular as the show itself. This season you’ve chosen to spoof The Handmaid’s Tale. What made you want to poke fun at that?
JS: I think I have this need to shade what I love. I feel this need to interrogate the status quo. It gets me going. We shade ourselves [too]. There’s a moment when Sam is watching something on TV that honestly could be a scene from DWP, and Coco makes a joke about how if she hears one more articulate Black argument set to jazz, she’s going to go crazy, and I believe the scene is set to jazz. I both love The Handmaid’s Tale and find it curious how overtly sexual the show is. Those are weird things that I don’t know what to do with in my mind. I’m just pointing out that you can love something and interrogate it at the same time.
That’s a perfect segue into Jerry Skyler and the Mr. Riggins character, which you play. Is that a spoof of Tyler Perry?
JS: To me, Jerry Skyler is actually a defense of Tyler Perry. When I was a young’n trying to get people to see me, I made a concept trailer for Dear White People, and the first lines in that concept trailer are “F*ck Tyler Perry.” But by the time I got the movie made a year later, I’m on the other side of the Q&A line and I’m getting read for filth. Oh, my God. People liked it and stuff, but the stuff that lingers is the people [saying], “That wasn’t gay enough for me.” “That wasn’t Black enough for me.” “That wasn’t woke enough for me.” And you realize, oh shit, we’re so starved to see ourselves that when we get the little bit of something -- but it’s not the meal we’ve been craving -- we can be f*ckin savage and vicious to other artists. And that’s what I did to Tyler.
I was casting my new movie, and he calls me out the blue and says, “Hello, it’s Tyler Perry.” He was so generous and so kind and affable. He just wanted to see if it was true, “Do we have beef?” And I said, 'We do not have beef, sir.' And in fact, I’ve been wanting to fanfic you in my show because I want Sam and you, or a person that represents you, to argue and have this conversation about why it is we look down upon some art and praise others.
I’m blending European cinema styles with Black people. It’s fresh and it’s new, but it comes from Europe. I’m embracing these white directors and their styles and telling my stories through them. And I don’t see a problem with that. But I definitely don’t have the right to look down upon storytellers who are walking in Black American traditions. I don’t have the right to look down on Black people who are showing up and get to see themselves in something. It’s not OK, and I wanted to say that in my own way, which is our story. And I felt like Jerry Skyler had to be me because I didn’t want it to become parody of him. It really is a tribute from one artist to another. It’s 2019 me verse 2013 me. You don’t know what it meant for him to call me. So this is my shady ass way of saying thank you, I guess.
It stuck out to me because I found our interview with you from 2014 where you stated, “Tyler Perry films are not made for me.”
JS: It’s true though. He doesn’t make them for me. He shouldn’t. Why should he? He has literal millions of people to make things for that love every bit of it. Why on earth should he be pressed about me? It’s my job to tell my story, not his.
With Blair Underwood’s professor Moses, I didn’t realize how much I was missing the Black adult presence on the show until I saw him.
JS: We’ve been wanting to get into the adult world of Winchester since Season 1, but we only have 10 episodes. We were all reeling in the writer’s room from the collapse of our heroes. It was as if Black Mount Rushmore exploded. You had the Finding Neverland documentary, the R. Kelly documentary and all the Bill Cosby stuff, every day there was something. And it was really destabilizing in a way that I don’t think frankly white people and the culture at large was talking about. Because these people are the only reason we’re here half the time.
The first Black person I saw on TV who wasn’t impoverished by their Blackness was Michael Jackson. How many bops and moments did R. Kelly provide the soundtrack for? Cosby is in the DNA. So to see some darker aspects of them come to light and have to say goodbye to them because of that, it leaves you without the reason you showed up. It doesn’t mean let's not interrogate them, but there is a healing that needs to happen because a void is there [now].
In order to articulate that in my show I had to have a character that you just loved, even if you felt that he was suspect, he glamoured you. Blair is a phenomenal actor but he’s also really hard to hate. He just starts talking and you’re like, “Sure, let’s do it. Let’s jump off the cliff. Where do you want me to go?” And so that’s why it had to be Blair. And I had the privilege of working with him on my second film, which I finished maybe last week. It was a love fest, and I also wanted an excuse to work with Blair again.
Reggie was going through it and I wanted us to walk through that feeling of being depressed and having a hero lift your head up high, get you out of bed, but also make you confront some hard to deal with stuff. And I wanted to do it slowly, meticulously and throw it out so you really got an opportunity to see all of those ceilings in everyday life that are kind of hard to handle.
The other adults come in the form of the Order of X. What was the inspiration for this secret society?
JS: I think we make jokes about the Illuminati because we’re hoping that there is some secret group of powerful Black people that have [power]. It’s terrifying to be a marginalized person in this country and be Black. We also iconize our civil rights leaders, and we’re always waiting for Obama to say something. I wanted to have this idea of a powerful Black ex-machina type thing in the wings in the imaginations of the characters. What happens when I take my hand off the wheel and do this self-love thing for real? If I try to nurture myself, what happens to the activism then? Can I rely on other powerful people to take it on? Are they real? I think we’ve all been having this anxiety of “What is gonna stand up to this guy? Who is going to save us from him?” We all feel that. And that’s what the Order of X became for me this season. I wanted to focus on the hope they inspire. When you’re waiting for the next Barack to ascend. How do you participate in the activism and the culture?
The secret society that Lionel discovers seems to be more fun. Talk about his sexual evolution in Season 3.
JS: Lionel was still dipping his toe in the gay pond because he’s dealing with internalized shame as well. He is terrified that the more gay he is in front of Black people, that he’ll be rejected by them. [But] he needs Black people. He needs something to anchor himself, and I finally just wanted to throw him off the deep end, because Lionel has been our only point of view into the gay world of Winchester so far. But because he hasn’t fully immersed himself in it, we haven’t been able to get up into ALL that tea. Most shows would wait until the very last episode for Lionel to finally get a boyfriend, but that’s not life. That’s not college, either. You literally change in every semester in college.
I also wanted to introduce this new character, Deonte, who gives voice to another perspective on being a gay Black male. He is completely well-adjusted when it comes to being gay and Black and out and out loud in front of all these white people. And I felt like the dual perspectives of Lionel, who is sort of figuring out who he is, and this other character, who knows very clearly who he is, would give us some canvas to tell more stories.
Does having a show like Pose being so popular make your job easier or harder?
JS: Neither. Pose is its own thing. I love Pose, by the way. But we’re talking about totally different experiences, I think. With DWP, I’m always trying to figure out what haven’t we said already and what part of me haven’t I sort of articulated. Because the more I investigate and put my shit out there, the more other people wonder, ‘Am I the only one?’ So it really hasn’t occurred to me, ‘Is this too similar?’ There’s so many versions of being queer and Black that have not been talked about anywhere in the culture. We have so many things on the checklist to get through.
There is no definitive statement on the Black queer experience. It’s too massive, dense and complicated. Pose, to me, is like shining a light on some HISTORY, some receipts-driven facts about how we got to where we are and is trying to tell us about a group of people who have been totally erased, either on purpose or unintentionally, of the contributions they’ve made. My show is kind of about the present. What is it that’s happening NOW that we’re not allowed to say out loud?
Dear White People Season 3 is streaming now.