“Dear White People” creator Justin Simien wants to be clear about this: When IndieWire brought up “Defamation,” “Dear White People’s” fictional show-within-a-show, we were the ones who made the obvious comparison.
“I didn’t say ‘Scandal,'” he said, laughing. “You said that.”
But between the “black political fixer in love with the President” narrative, the fabulous coats, and the distinctive camera-shutter sound effects, it’s pretty obvious what “Dear White People” is referencing with “‘Defamation’ Nights,” a staple of black culture at Winchester University, which finds itself rocked by racial politics over the course of the first season.
Starting in the first episode, group-watching the primetime soap adventures of “Olive Bishop” are clearly a regular part of the lives of Sam (Logan Browning) and her fellow students, as well as a tongue-in-cheek ribbing of the ABC drama created by Shonda Rhimes — that happens to be one of broadcast television’s most prominent representations of black culture.
“Scandal” is a landmark show for many reasons, especially within the black community in America, and Simien was aware he was perhaps making fun of a sacred cow.
“I don’t think I come as hard as a Dave Chappelle or a Chris Rock or anything like that, but I think part of the fun of comedy is being able to laugh at those things that are sacred,” he said. “And the fun thing about doing a show like this is that I get so many chances to portray these moments that are so specific to being a young black person, such as gathering for a big talk-at-the-screen viewing night. That’s just something that is so common in my experience but no one really talks about it.
“In fact, it is kind of a sacred event,” he added. “You dare not come for the great Shonda Rhimes, for good reason.”
“Scand–” um, we mean, “Defamation” represents just one aspect of the black experience that “Dear White People” chronicles during its first season. But what’s fascinating about the choice to create “Defamation” specifically for the TV adaptation of Simien’s hit indie film is that, upon many other occasions, Simien, showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser, and the other writers reference pre-existing pop culture.
That said, those tend to be more offhand references. The major elements are fictional, for a reason that ties into the show’s general ethos.
“Honestly, it’s just the way my brain ticks: to do versions of things that make sense within this story world, but maybe not the real world,” he said. “And in the same way that they [“The Simpsons”] never quite seem to mention what state Springfield is in, we never mention what state Winchester is in. It’s purposefully thought of as like the alternate version of reality. It makes it a heightened reality. It makes it more satirical, I think.”
“I find a lot of pleasure in, instead of just saying what the real thing is, coming up with what our alternate version is in this world. Maybe that’s just because I watched too much TV as a kid, I don’t know, but I always think that’s more fun,” he said. “And at the end of the day, ‘Scandal’ is never as ridiculous as ‘Defamation.’ So, it’s also a lot easier to poke fun of something like ‘Defamation’ because we can just go even more over-the-top with it.”
The additional benefit: By occasionally divorcing itself from the real world, “Dear White People” creates a space where its more intense narrative moments might become more palatable for the audience.
“I think it allows us to talk about things that, honestly, might be a little overhanded if we were in this totally real, gritty version of reality,” Simien said. “The hyper-reality is a more comfortable place to do satire for me.”
Simien, for the record, loved directing the “Defamation” segments.
“That genre is so fun,” he said. “Doing a soap is so fun that, just as a director, I just wanted to do it. I wanted to write in that style and direct something that’s totally over the top. As much fun as I have directing generally, I’ve never had as much fun as I did doing the ‘Defamation’ pieces. Those were always a highlight for me.”
Does Rhimes, or anyone at Shondaland, know about “Dear White People”? Simien thinks so, because “we tried to use it in a spot, and they politely declined.” He laughed again. “I don’t really know if she even knows who I am, or what this is, or anything of that stuff. But, I’d imagine that she’s protective of her brand. And I understand that.”
What Simien wants to make clear is that in poking fun at “Scandal,” he means no insult. “Ultimately, I’m celebrating these things. But there’s always room to make fun of stuff.”
“Dear White People” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.