For many of us, Dear White People began as a feature length satirical drama, premiering at the January 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. In October of the same year, the film was picked up and distributed by Roadside Attractions (in the Lionsgate family), and made $4.6 million at the box office. Dear White People featured talent like Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris and Malcolm Barrett, who have all gone on to work on great projects since then.
But this ivy league set story about racism and the black student community perspective in a PWI environment really began in the mind of writer, director and co-producer Justin Simien. And the story is far from over. In 2016, Netflix ordered ten, 30-minute episodes to serve as the first season of Dear White People, the series. And if you're still somehow completely out of the loop, you can find the movie streaming on Netflix, too.
Although the cast has changed, the premise and the driving creative force will stay the same. We sat down with Justin Simien, Logan Browning (as the new Samantha White) and Brandon P. Bell, who is retaining his role as Troy Fairbanks. Check out our conversation.
The trailer for the series has received a lot of negative criticism, claiming that the idea of the show is playing to reverse racism. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
Justin: That's interesting. In the date announcement, a woman of color politely asks people not to mock her. And if that is taken as anti-white, I'm not sure what we're talking about here. I think this is another example, that we've honestly seen throughout history. When people of color, or any kind of marginalized group, dares to speak the truth of their experience, there is this knee-jerk feeling of threat by people who have been empowered for a very long time.
It's that quote that says, 'Equality to a person of privilege could feel like oppression.' It doesn't mean that they're actually oppressed, it's just the feeling. And I would say I'm a very thoughtful person. This is a very thoughtful series, and if I wanted to make something that was anti-white, frankly I don't think that would be very interesting. I don't think that would hold up over a 10 episode series. So I would challenge people who are so up in arms about the show to watch it before they decide they have an opinion about it.
What's the culture like on set? Do you guys ever get emotional when things get intense for those scenes? What's that experience like?
Brandon: We mesh really well as actors. So, we've kind of always had a good support system in just being able to talk to each other. We're in close proximity, in terms of the set, trailers, etc. And we all kind of signed on for the same reason. Obviously we're all lucky to be a part of it, but we all signed up knowing what was at stake. And so, for certain scenes that, in particular, were very emotional due to the trauma that took place, everyone had a very mature, professional reaction, in terms of letting it happen, because that's real as well, but also making sure that we get the shot. Given the climate, this isn't stuff to just get over. Art imitates life and it affects people. Everyone has shed a tear here or there watching something that isn't real, and that's because it connects with something deeper.
Logan: Our experience was kind of similar. It echoed these kids in college, where maybe you knew some people from your high school, you go to the same place and you have these new people, but you're all kind of in this space where you're excited and you're willing to trust each other. And you're learning about each other and you're exploring together. It's odd how when you are performing in a setting, how that setting influences where you actually are in real life. Initially, with the blackface party, I was not prepared for how traumatizing that would be—even after having seen the film. And there were so many different unspoken dialogues between myself and so many of the actors who were in blackface that made me sad, that made me mad, that made me uncomfortable, that I hope translates for people when they're watching the film. It felt real.
Justin: That's the thing about this cast. They're just so committed to going there. Myself and the other writers are so committed to telling the truth and, particularly on this issue, the truth can be very painful. We have to revisit our wounds over and over again. I'm just so lucky that they're so professional and so kind. My cast is really kind. There were moments in certain episodes where we had to stop production so that we could all sort of take a collective breath and steel ourselves for the rest of the shoot. And that wouldn't have gone down so well if I didn't have such a group of committed, kind people.
How do you relate to the character you portray? How do you see yourself in your characters?
Brandon: I think people have always seen me as a "Troy" type of person, which is really interesting. Their perception of me is polished, clean, etc. That is really interesting because I'm a lot different than Troy, but similar as well because that is a part of reality I've had to live with, which isn't a bad thing necessarily. It's not hard because it's a visual medium, so I fit the mold of that as well, but the differences make it really fun to get into—being a silver spoon kid, and having political aspirations, and being a leader. That's fun to play. Troy's definitely a lot more ambitious in certain ways than Brandon is, but it's something to aspire to. Troy, for better or worse, really wants to do good. He's just not sure how to go about it. He's been groomed to be this kind of figure, this picture perfect image of a safe black man—an Obama-esque figure. My ambitions haven't been that grand, in terms of me being an artist, but it's fun to play because it exists. It's an archetype of a black man, a safe, good, positive black man, which is easy to play. There are plenty of examples out there. Also, the internal conflicts Troy goes through, I have my own internal conflicts that are similar. So I totally relate, even though there may be small differences.
Would you say that the culture nuances of racism are more apparent after you completed this project, or before? Do you think that your past experiences have affected this role, or that this role will affect your outlook going forward? Or both?
Logan: Definitely both for me, without question. I've been the black girl in a white setting. I've been the black girl in an all black setting. I've been a black girl in a mixed setting. I've had all of those experiences. But one of the experiences I think I'm getting from the show is it's not so black and white, and it's not so simple. I'm from Georgia so a lot of things are so black and white. It's almost like you live in this alternate universe where there is no other ethnicity. You're either this or you're that. Even if you are another ethnicity, you have to fit into one of those categories. It does parallel America in terms of wanting you to pick a side. It's important to understand races, but it's also more fun to look at people's ethnicities and learn about people's cultures. I feel like that's something that I feel a hint of in my own life, but I'm learning more to ask someone 'Where are you from?' and get more into their specific culture.
Justin: Freedom is not having to define freedom. Freedom is never even knowing any other concept, but being yourself. The fact that we have to constantly define freedom makes it so evident that we are not free in many ways. And the fact that we have to fight for freedom tells you how little of it we actually have.
Brandon: Nina Simone, no fear.
Logan: I see freedom in the youth. When I see how comfortable our youth is expressing themselves and accepting each other, that feels new to me. It feels like something I haven't always necessarily been able to experience. And freedom for me is time, unfortunately. If this generation feels able to express themselves more, then the next generation hopefully will get deeper into that. It's been there, but it's getting younger and younger, but that's the juxtaposition. Why should they have to be allowed? Why am I even allowing them to be free? Maybe I just don't know what freedom is, and that's really sad.
Dear White People is available to stream on Netflix Friday 4/28.