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Television

‘Dear White People’: Creator Justin Simien goes back to class in Season 2

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- WEDNESDAY, APRIL 18, 2018: Justin Simien, the creator and showrunner of Netf
Justin Simien is the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s TV adaptation of “Dear White People,” which is based on his 2014 indie film of the same name.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Tap open Instagram: Justin Simien has a message for you.

It’ s the week that season 2 of “Dear White People,” the television continuation of the 2014 independent film,is released on Netflix and Simien, its soon-to-be-35-year-old mastermind, has been reviewing audience scores of the debut season on Rotten Tomatoes. While the series — which explores race relations, identity and privilege at a fictional Ivy League university — received a 100% fresh rating with critics, its audience rating was a more dubious 65%.

Questioning how many of the low scores were given by people who never actually watched the show, Simien has taken to the social media app to post some quickie videos to voice his frustrations.

“I am so tired of these [expletive] having the narrative,” Simien, seated in a car, says into his camera phone and posts for his 17,000 followers to view. “Like, I saw this thing that was like ‘critics love it, but audiences are divided.’ Audiences are not divided … these people didn’t see this show. Why do they get the narrative? Why do they get it?”

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It’s something that has puzzled Simien since before the first season was released. Written and shot as Barack Obama was finishing out his second term, the first season challenged the notion America was in a post-racial era.

When Netflix unveiled a teaser trailer of the first season early last year, a few months after Donald Trump was elected president, many people took to social media with messages that labeled the satirical comedy as “racist” and “supporting white genocide” — some even proclaimed they’d cancel their subscriptions to the streaming service.

la-et-st-dear-white-people
Ashley Blaine Featherson, left, Logan Browning, Antoinette Robertson, right front, in a scene from Netflix’ “Dear White People.”
(Adam Rose/Netflix )

The vitriol (or as Simien refers to it, the “brigade of trolls and automated hate-orade”) stung Simien then. And, judging by the present-day Instagram posts, it still stings a bit now.

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“I treat it like a game, because it is,” Simien says a few days after posting the messages. “My therapist, of all people, has the most disturbing and wonderful saying I’ve ever heard, which is: in another hundred years, there’s all new people. Which is just a really, sort of, existential way of saying really none of this ... matters. There will be no you for it to matter to. All of these annoying trolls will be gone as well. I try not to be frustrated.”

Try or not, it certainly made him curious. And it prompted a storytelling thread in season 2 about alt-right internet trolls. In addition to cyberbullying, the second season, now available to stream on Netflix, delves deeper into racial tensions, conscious or subconscious, after the school’s all-black dorm, Armstrong Parker, becomes integrated following a fire at a nearby dorm.

We have a cultural historical amnesia in this country and as citizens, and I think it’s just, honestly, really irresponsible.”
Justin Simien, the creator and showrunner of ‘Dear White People’

Of course, recent months have seen racial and political discord play out to the extreme on college campuses such as UC Berkeley and the University of Virginia — something that is not lost on Simien.

“For me, I had a sense of urgency,” Simien says of tackling season 2 during the Trump presidency. “When I left season 1, I certainly had a very specific experience being the target of some alt-right trolls. And what I found so interesting about the experience was, it wasn’t just being the target of blind hate. I felt that people were using this blind hate to kind of mobilize.

“For the first time, in my own time, I saw this kind of blind racial outrage being weaponized. And the more and more I read and looked into the history of our country, the more I saw it. And I saw how the ignorance of people is step one in any kind of takeover.This constant erasing of our history and telling people to just get over things ...we have a cultural historical amnesia in this country and as citizens, and I think it’s just, honestly, really irresponsible.”

If it feels like Simien has a lot to say on the topic, he does. It’s a balmy afternoon and Simien, who has just returned from a trip to Italy with his partner, is delving into a lot while seated at the kitchen table of his new, not-fully-moved-in English Tudor home in Silver Lake. (Some of the decorative flourishes include a block print of Michael Jackson on the living room mantle, multiple copies of Vanity Fair with cover girl — and Simien’s bestie — writer Lena Waithe and a not-yet-hung framed art print inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) He talks of the importance of education and understanding our history, shared and not shared.

“There are people in this country who still think slavery is a volunteer program,” Simien says, weeks before rapper Kanye West would make headlines with his charged comments about slavery being a “choice.” It gets him talking about what he sees as the residual effects of slavery — everything from income inequality to housing to the school and prison pipeline.

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“If we would just all be on the same page about that, we could do some amazing things,” he says.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- WEDNESDAY, APRIL 18, 2018: Justin Simien, the creator and showrunner of Netf
Justin Simien, the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s TV adaptation “Dear White People,” which is based on his 2014 indie film of the same name, poses for portrait at his home in Angeles.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times )

He doesn’t expect his Netflix show to fix the problem. But he hopes it will get people to listen.

“I don’t think it’s an educational show, and I don’t think it’s a finger-wagging show,” Simien says. “The truth is, I’m talking about the human condition through the lens of my race. But I’m not just talking about my race. I’m just trying to tell stories. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Growing up in Houston as a “little gay, Catholic black boy” who lost his father at a young age, Simien says he spent much of his childhood never quite knowing how to be in the world.

“I think it took me a while to even realize, as an adult, how traumatic a lot of that was,” Simien says. “I just never felt right. I had to put on layers of personality to be OK in a given space. The one thing that felt really clear to me was movies. I remember very early knowing that I wanted to make stuff that was on TV and in movie theaters. I remember seeing ‘The Wiz’ before I could talk. I remember how I felt coming home from ‘Beauty and the Beast.’” He laughs when he shares how, as a kid, he’s turn up the “Jurassic Park” soundtrack and bring out his action figures to make movies in his head.

He attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston — where he became acquainted with the work of Kubrick (his idol), Bob Fosse and Spike Lee — and later moved out west to attend Chapman University in Orange, Calif., where he studied film. He eventually moved to Los Angeles after graduation and took on various positions at studios, including as a publicity assistant at Focus Features and a social media manager at Sony Television. All the while, he would work on scripts — including what eventually would materialize into ‘Dear White People.”

He is brave, he’s quiet, he’s a student — in every sense of the word.
Writer Lena Waithe, Simien’s best friend
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The low-budget film was shot in Minnesota in summer 2013 and premiered at Sundance early the next year. A combination of encouragement from an executive at Netflix, Tara Duncan, and visiting colleges to talk to students got Simien thinking there was more to cover — not as a sequel but as a TV show.

“He’s a master of conveying a very deep thought in a digestible way,” says Duncan, who is the director of original series at Netflix. “To me, it’s that dialogue that’s really fresh and has a certain energy to it. The reason why I think it really pops now and why it’s important, is he’s unapologetically black and he’s a gay man who understands that that’s his identity and he’s not afraid to talk about the way he sees the world and tries to understand how the world sees him.”

“He is a genius boy,” says Waithe, who was a producer on the 2014 movie and will appear in the show’s second season. “I am honored to live in a time in which he is alive and working and making art. He is brave, he’s quiet, he’s a student — in every sense of the word. He’s a person that is going to read my stuff and challenge me and tell me to be better and tell me to go harder. I’m someone that’s always going to cheer him on and champion him but also... pitch him a better joke than he may have in there, and he’ll be like, ‘Yep, you’re right, okay.’ There is just a real bond there. He always likes to say we’re dust from the same star, and I think that’s true.”

For Simien, the thrill is just in being a storyteller in this moment.

“It’s a beautiful time,” he says. “There’s Ava [Duvernay], there’s Barry [Jenkins], there’s Ryan [Coogler]. We are not in that crabs-in-a-barrel mind set. I’m just grateful that I didn’t have to go through the first wave, because so many doors are open now. So you can Donald Trump all you want, but Kendrick [Lamar] just won the Pulitzer — so, how you doin’? We’re not going back.”

‘Dear White People’

Where: Netflix

When: Any time, starting Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy


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