When Justin Simien’s debut feature Dear White People first premiered at Sundance in January 2014, America didn’t know the names Sandra Bland or Philando Castile. But their horrific deaths at the hands of the police are both referenced in Simien’s new episodic adaptation of the film, which will start streaming on Netflix April 28th and was shown to an audience for the first time at SXSW on Monday afternoon.
The references to those stories highlight how much has changed in American culture in the three short years since the film’s debut. Another sign that things are different now came when Netflix put up a 30 second teaser on YouTube last month and was hit with a barrage of racist backlash against what was described as an “anti-white” show, including the hashtag #BoycottNetflix.
Simien responded with a tweetstorm of his own, writing, “We live in a world of cognitive dissonance. Post-facts is possible because we are terrified we’ll die if we are wrong, even when we know it. As he explained to the trolls, “‘Dear White People’ was a widely reviewed film three years ago. A cursory Google search would confirm it has no racist intent. But that Google search is not embarked upon because they NEED it to be hate speech. They NEED to fight an enemy, lest they sit alone in their own pain. Feelings of being [passed] over by an evolving society.”
There’s a lot more for the haters to hate in the first two episodes of the series — but a lot more for fans of the film to love. Simien has only expanded the same story that drove the movie, weaving the same kind of multi-character narrative that he grew up loving in films like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Robert Altman’s MASH.
Each character is given their own point-of-view episode so viewers see the same incidents from multiple perspectives, starting with college-radio DJ Samantha White, played here by Logan Browning and previously portrayed by Tessa Thompson. A student at the fictional Ivy League Winchester University, Sam helps stoke outrage on her show, also called “Dear White People,” over a blackface party thrown by the campus humor magazine Pastiche. After she puts up posters that read, “Missing: Black Culture,” with her face on a milk carton, the group responds with it’s own “Dear Black People” message: “Missing: Free Speech.”
The second episode of the show switches the point of view to DeRon Horton’s nerdy campus newspaper reporter Lionel Higgins (Everybody Hates Chris’s Tyler James Williams in the film). Lionel is both black and gay, still coming to grips with both identities, which gives the show a chance to tackle intersectionality in a way still rarely seen on television. He says he doesn’t like labels, but as his Mexican-Italian gay editor tells him, “Without labels, people in Florida would drink Windex.” It’s a theme that will likely be explored even more in an episode later in the season directed by Moonlight’s Oscar-winning writer-director Barry Jenkins.
“Intersectionality is just another way of saying human beings,” Simien told the crowd at the post-screening Q&A. He doesn’t believe in the idea of “black shows,” as Dear White People will inevitably be labeled alongside recent success stories like Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Issa Rae’s Insecure. (See, I just did it.) When you see a movie with a predominantly white cast, he said it’s a “given” that they are simply seen as people. “But unfortunately, when you see a show with people of color in it, that’s not always a given.”
“For me, it was really important to say they’re not just black kids,” he continued. “They’re black and gay, or black and confused, or black and female, or black and Republican.” He added, “Yes, it’s the black experience, but if I do my job right, no matter what background you come from, you should be able to see yourselves in these characters.”
Beyond using satire to explore these potentially divisive issues, Dear White People the series is also, at its core, a very funny comedy, full of savvy, meta pop culture references that had the SXSW audience laughing uproariously throughout the premiere screening.
“What CW show are we in?” one character asks another when things start to get a little too melodramatic. (Like those CW shows, which are famous for casting 20-something actors as high school kids, Dear White People has a few 30-somethings playing college students, including Brandon P. Bell and Marque Richardson, reprising their roles from the movie.)
“I thought this kind of thing only happened in the ’50s or in, like, BuzzFeed articles,” another female student says when news of the blackface party starts to spread. When it is revealed that Sam is secretly sleeping with a white student, and when she defends herself by saying she’s bi-racial, her best friend Joelle (the hysterical Ashley Blaine Featherson) replies, “You’re not Rashida Jones bi-racial, you’re Tracee Ellis Ross bi-racial.”
These types of jokes reach their peak, however, when the black students gather for their weekly viewing of the fictional TV show “Defamation,” an overt parody of Scandal that Simien describes as his favorite thing he has ever directed in his life.
The issues of political correctness and “reverse racism” that dominate the series were presciently explored in the 2014 film, but feel even more potent now in the age of President Trump expressing himself on Twitter and Milo Yiannopoulos causing chaos at universities. During the Q&A, Simien and the cast revealed that their final days of shooting fell on November 8th. They started the day hopeful for the prospect of America’s first female president and ended it “crestfallen” at the country’s new reality.
“Once I got out of bed a couple of days later, I was just so fucking proud,” Simien said. “I was so proud that we had a clap back at the ready.”
“We commented on the world we were going to live in before we knew it was coming,” he added. The prescience continues.