What was the most fun part of filming Dear White People, Netflix’s adaptation of Justin Simien’s 2014 film? Definitely the Scandal parody Defamation, Simien said during a Q&A after the show’s premiere at SXSW on Monday. In fact, he says, it was “the highlight of my career.”
The parody appears in episode 1 of the series (two were shown at the premiere) and is very funny; it’s certainly a highlight in a show about race and identity, one that drew some hollow outrage after the trailer debuted last month. (When moderator Chris Ryan told Simien there would be questions from Twitter, he responded, “Oh, lord.”) The series, which debuts on Netflix April 28, focuses on students of the fictional Winchester University in the wake of a “Dear Black People” Halloween party that includes students dressed in blackface. As the series’ voiceover (by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) attests, this is a real college tradition: “Google it.”
Simien was joined by executive producer Yvette Bowser and cast members Logan Browning, John Patrick Amedori, DeRon Horton, Brandon P. Bell, Antoinette Robertson, Ashley Blaine Featherson, and Marque Richardson to discuss the filming process and the many layers of social commentary. At the end of episode 1, Sam White (Browning) delivers a powerful monologue about racism on campus, as she attempts to navigate being biracial and dating a white man (Amedori). It includes references to Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and Philando Castile. In episode 2, the focus is on budding journalist Lionel (Horton) and his sexual identity.
Asked whether intersectionality was important, Simien responded: “Intersectionality is just another way of saying human being.” Bowser added that the stories told in the series are personal ones.
Simien’s always been drawn to “multi-protagonist” stories and wanted to make a binge-worthy show that switched protagonists every episode. At its core, it’s a “story about identity versus self,” he said.
Another highlight was shooting episode 5, which was directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins. The cast said that episode really brought them together, and while no major details were given away, Simien said it was a “turning point.” The show stopped filming on Election Day, and some of the content is very prescient.
“The scary thing about satire is, it often becomes a documentary,” he said.