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‘Dear White People’: Barry Jenkins on Directing the Series’ Most Unsettling Episode

The “Moonlight” Oscar winner breaks down that ending shot.

Marque Richardson, "Dear White People" Episode 5

Netflix

Before Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for “Moonlight,” he directed an episode of Justin Simien’s Netflix series “Dear White People.”

Each episode or “chapter,” as they’re formally called, focuses on one student at the fictional, predominantly white Ivy League school Winchester University, especially in regards to the racial issues on campus. “Chapter V” features a heated exchange between two characters that comes to a head in a frightening parallel to the real world: [Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for Episode 5.] Black student activist Reggie (Marque Richardson) and a white student have a confrontation at a party that culminates in campus security coming in and drawing a gun on him.

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In an interview with Vulture, Jenkins commented on the episode that was written by Reggie Heyward and Jack Moore, and how he chose to frame Reggie in specific shots. “What happens in that episode is more like what you would expect to happen in the world of ‘Moonlight’ than in the world of ‘Dear White People,’ in the hallowed halls of Winchester. And yet, of course, these things do happen at places like that,” he said. “So directing that scene was about very organically living in the truth that there is always the possibility of this sort of thing happening — that the threat is always present in the American society we live in today.”

Below are a few highlights from the interview:

Framing Reggie so he’s almost an outsider: “[Reggie is] very focused and he cares very passionately about a lot of things, and in previous episodes of the show, those things were not allowed to be centered, because he was not the main character. He was on the periphery, especially in one scene that occurs very early in the episode. And in the scene, you have Reggie on one side of the conversation, by himself, right in the center of his own frame. Facing him, you have this wall of other characters, and they’re pictured either in a three-shot or a two-shot. A lot of the time Reggie is looking very directly at them. What we’re trying to do here is work the audience very directly into this character’s consciousness.”

"Dear White People" Episode 5

Filming the security guard confrontation without music: “I thought the conversation that was happening in that scene was so real that there was no need to bring in any artifice. The energy between the characters would carry the day. That was the most emotional I’ve ever felt on a set. Everybody was crying. When that gun was pointed at Reggie, it felt like it was pointed at everyone.”

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Moving in on Reggie in the final scene: “I thought, well, by this point we know what it feels like to have Reggie watching us, so now I want Reggie to feel like we’re watching him. I want the camera to creep in on him subtly, from the perspective of the television viewer… I had to ask myself, Well, how can I avoid having to tell him when to look at the camera, while still making sure that Marque looks at the camera at the moment that will allow this moment to reach its fullest emotional apex? I realized that we could do that if we used a dolly, because when you do that shot with a dolly the actor can actually feel the camera moving closer to him…That is a ‘Dear White People’ thing, that shot, especially at the ends of episodes where they’re looking directly into the camera.”

“Dear White People” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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