The S&A 'Dear White People' Interview
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.
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.
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