The S&A 'Dear White People' Interview

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April 20th 2017

NETFLIX NETFLIX

The highly anticipated film-turned-series, "Dear White People" has finally hit Netflix today, April 28. The series, which follows Sam White (Logan Browning) and the other Black students at the fictional Ivy League Winchester University, picks up where the film left off. This time around all of the students will be getting their chance to eviscerate racism and speak their truths, through this wonderfully written satirical piece.

Ahead of the series premiere, I sat down with writer and director Justin Simien who wrote the film and all 10-episodes of the first season, Logan Browning who stars as Sam White (a role that Tessa Thompson originated in the film), and Brandon P. Bell who will reprise his role from the film as Troy Fairbanks.

We discussed expanding the world of the film into a series, what inspired Simien to write the film in the first place, and how our current political climate will inform the show.

Aramide Tinubu: Hi guys!

Justin Simien: Shadow and Act! Y’all were the first ones to put out the “Dear White People” concept trailer back in the day. So we are forever in debt!

AT: So dope! You guys are awesome. So going from the film to the television series, why was that important for you to do?

JS: There was just so much more to say about these people. And, one of the reasons why being a storyteller is so important to me is I really feel like we need to see ourselves in stories. One of the things that is challenging about being a person of color in this society is that it’s so hard to see ourselves. There are so many shades of us. Just because you have a show with a Black woman in it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it speaks to you.

AT: Exactly!

JS: With the movie, every single one of those characters are characters that I have not seen in anything before. With the show, we get to go even deeper into those characters lives and introduce some new characters that I also haven’t seen in anything before. So, anybody who felt like, “Gosh, I didn’t really get enough of the gay experience, or I didn’t get enough of the male experience or I didn’t get enough of the female perspective.” Whatever you feel like you didn’t get enough of in the movie, we’re giving it to you in this series! (Laughing) Every episode is from a different character’s point of view. So, you get to go home with Coco (Antoinette Robertson), you don’t just see her through the eyes of other people, you see her through her own eyes as she looks at her reflection in the mirror. I just think that’s so important because we aren’t archetypes, we aren’t these sort of ideas of people, we’re people. We have hopes and dreams and contradictions and flaws. A television show gives you the canvas to go that deep.

AT: Logan, you are picking up where Tessa Thompson left off with Sam White, but you’ve really made her your own character. What was that process like for you; looking at what Tessa built and then spinning it for yourself?

Logan Browning: I learned to relate it to theater, which was really fun because I personally haven’t had the joy of being in many theater productions. So, there was this great piece of work, and I saw someone perform brilliantly, and I got to absorb that. (Laughing) It almost feels like cheating, you know? You have so many things to go off of, and I went back to the screenplay, and that was really fun. Just seeing the stage directions, or seeing things that changed and to see them come to life. Reading the lines for myself from the screenplay and saying, that was Tessa’s interpretation as Sam, how does Logan feel about it? So, that was my approach.

AT: Brandon, you’ve lived with your character, Troy for a little bit longer because you were also in the film. So what shocked you about Troy that you didn’t expect coming into the series. What did you learn about him that you didn’t know previously?

Brandon P. Bell: A lot of things actually. Troy’s main relationships are with his dad (Obba Babatundé), Coco, women, Lionel (DeRon Horton) and his role within the Black community and the community at large on campus because he’s in politics. He’s the head of C.O.R.E., the Coalition of Racial Equality, and at the end of the film he was running for President. So for me, it was going deeper and exploring the toll that that’s going to take on Troy. We all know that he likes to smoke weed and write jokes by his lonesome in the bathroom out of a toilet paper roll. That is a part of Troy’s identity that he doesn’t share with anyone. For me, it’s how does he manage all of that but also maintain some sense of sanity and himself? Who is Troy? Without spoiling anything, there is a lot of things that I think the audience will love and get to discover. As an actor, you want that. You want to build and be challenged. Where Troy ends up is great. I couldn’t have asked for a better arc.

AT: All of you went to predominantly white universities, I did as well, and it was …interesting. (Laughing) So Justin how did you come up with the concept for “Dear White People” while in school? Was it because you felt isolated, did you feel like you didn’t belong?

JS: For me, it actually grew out of a conversation that I was having with my best friends at the time about the fact that we were hanging out with other Black kids from the Black Student Union, but we didn’t necessarily like all of them. (Laughing) We were just sort of like; we’re hanging out with these people because they’re Black and for no other reason. So, this conversation that we were having amongst ourselves, it just struck me as so funny that I’d never seen it in a movie before. It was like a conundrum of being Black in America that was never dealt with. Every time you saw a Black movie or a Black television show, magically everyone in the show was Black. The cab drivers are Black, the people working at the coffee shop were Black. My favorite thing about “Boomerang” is that everybody in New York was Black! My experience has always been one of few. My mother who is Creole, is a very light-skinned woman, so people didn’t understand why were holding hands through the mall. Just that feeling of being the only one who understood who you were; and not seeing yourself reflected back in the culture. I just felt like that was something that a lot of us were and are going through, and it just felt like doing a college satire was the perfect way to articulate that feeling. It felt like new territory. It was a jumping off point to get into all of these other issues. But, it all started with the sense of feeling like, “Why is it that I feel like I have to play a version of myself for my Black friends and then another version of myself for my white friends, and a version of myself in class?” Is that unique to the Black experience? Is that a human condition thing? Those were the questions that were on my mind when I started writing the film, and I don’t know if they’ve ever left.

AT: Logan and Brandon did you have similar experiences?

BPB: Of course! Absolutely. Marque Richardson who is in the film and series and myself we stayed on the “Black Floor” at USC. No lie. So it’s kind of like a small version of the Black culture house in the series; there were just so many parallels on every level. Just being an eclectic person who had different taste and interest, I was a theater major, so I was doing plays with theater friends who were completely different from my friends who were athletes, who were completely different than the women I was dating, who was completely different from my parents. So it all feels very familiar.

LB: My college experience was in a lot of ways similar to the way I grew. It goes a couple of different ways. We were an upper middle-class family.

BPB: Bad and boujee!! (Laughing)

LB: (Laughing) The neighborhood that I lived in was mostly white, but my parents wanted us to go to public school. The county that I lived in was predominantly Black, so my school was mostly Black. That experience was interesting for me because I experienced so many things growing up. When I got to college, I was the only Black girl on my floor, but I was able to still be myself with the girls in my quad. However, when I would go down the hall, there were some girls from Texas who were very particular types of girls, and I felt like I became a different person. Then when I left my dorm, and I was around my Black friends I was a mixture of both of those things. It’s not a one-note experience that I’ve had, and it was similar to “Dear White People.” We keep talking about identity and how you are different versions of yourself even within one race. It’s not like you’re necessarily one version of yourself around Black people.

JS: Yeah. It wasn’t until I turned thirty that I actually invited all of my friends to the same birthday party. I don’t know if that’s a thing for people who aren’t Black. We are these segmented people because we sort of have to be to survive. That’s stuff is just so interesting to me.

AT: How does the fact that we are now in Trump’s America inform the show? How will it change going into different seasons? Justin, has Trump’s presidency changed how you want to approach your writing?

JS: Well, we wrapped on Election Day.

AT: Wow!

JS: It was shocking, to say the least, but it also felt oddly encouraging, because we already had an answer prepared for this country. I think going forward a lot of the questions I am asking myself that I think everyone is asking are, “How much do you have a conversation with people who are on a completely different ideological track then you? How much do you just try to silence them because what is happening to you is unjust?” There are two schools of thought; one is you can’t try to argue with your oppressor for equality because it’ll get you nowhere. For other people, the philosophy is you have to find common ground with people who don’t agree with you. So, I think we’re all asking ourselves well, “Which one is it because I’m pissed as hell?” But, me being pissed doesn’t really do anything, so, what do I do? What do you do in a world that is so polarized, but they're not being treated unjustly, I am. I’m the one who is suffering a lack of justice. What do you do in that situation? I think that will be at the forefront of my mind when we finally sit down to write season two. Do you scream or do you talk? Does either help?

LB: What are the odds that we ended on Election Day?! Everyone in Trump’s America regardless of where you sit, you have to watch the show and say, “This all happened before Trump.” Anything that was written after this was written from a different experience; we were different people. That’s very special about the show, forever in history that very nuanced show is going to live pre-Trump. Obviously, it was a world where he was existing, but that is a very definitive line.

JS: Yes, America is a different place…it’s going to be interesting.

BPB: Similar to what Justin said, for me, it's about what can I do? When you live in your particular bubble because we all do to an extent, and when the injustice isn’t as direct, it’s easy to hide behind the comforts of your life. However, I think now; everybody can’t help but wake up because with technology and everything…

JS: The stakes are so high.

BPB: A tweet won’t cut it anymore. So now, going forward as an artist, this is a great opportunity to be a part of “Dear White People” to see what we come up with next. As a person it’s just like what can I do and how can I get involved to really bring about change? What do you do? Call? Send postcards?

JS: It’s a conundrum; we’re in a tough spot here. But one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes is, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” When you read you realize that we’ve been here before, as bad as this feels we have been here before and the odds were a lot worse. So, we can do it; I don’t know how yet, but we’re going to figure it out because our lives are at stake.

AT: Thank you all so much.

"Dear White People" hits Netflix today, Friday, April 28th.

Writer's Note: I spoke to the Simien and the cast days before the "Dear White People" date announcement dropped. Once the teaser hit the net, Simien and the cast were engulfed in a firestorm of racist and abusive messages. The director penned the heartfelt essay "Why did I name it “Dear White People?” in response.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYKgHvPVACE




Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

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