“Dear White People” has garnered a lot of praise for its stellar first season, and each episode is deserving of its own time in the spotlight. Part of what makes all 10 individual half-hours stand out is how creator, writer, and director Justin Simien collaborated with everyone involved — including Episode 5 director Barry Jenkins.
In a Facebook Live chat with IndieWire, Simien explained how his relationship with the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” director moved from “Twitter friends” to professional collaborators. And, further still, how that friendship helped him get the most out of the talented director.
“My job was to free up Barry Jenkins to be Barry Jenkins,” Simien said. “A lot of it was messing with him because he was so respectful, and it wasn’t even necessary at times. He’d be like, ‘Justin, is it OK if I have them do this or do that?’ And I was like, ‘No, Barry. That’s not how I chewed it.’ And then I’d start laughing because of course it was a brilliant idea, Barry! Fucking shoot the show they way you want!'”
Simien also explained how he wanted directors to bring their own vision to the episodes they helmed. He wanted Reggie’s episode to feel “singular,” and freeing Jenkins’ creative energy was key to that.
Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images
Outside of his directors, Simien is drawing inspiration from all over the media map — Robert Altman, “Girls,” “Fleabag,” and “Adventure Time” — but “Dear White People” is always rooted in personal experiences.
“I did think about it like a five-hour movie, but I thought of it like a five-hour [Robert] Altman movie,” Simien said. “When you see Robert Altman movies, they really are just a bunch of short films cut together, that are united in some way — by place or incident — but they are separate storylines that come together at different points in the film.”
Simien noted how shifting the storytelling perspective each episode proved especially conducive to an Altman-esque structure. The season was guided by a specific incident — a blackface party — leading to a general campus-wide crisis, but the larger issue remained in the background as its effects were examined on a personal level by multiple characters.
“In a lot of ways, being a young black person, that’s kind of how it feels,” he said. “There’s always a bigger social drama playing to some degree in the background of my life, but in the meantime, I’ve got all this other stuff going on, too.”
“That was the narrative approach to it, and it felt thematically sound because that’s how it feels; that’s what my experience is.”
Simien also spoke about the acting changes from film to series, how Logan Browning surprised him before they even met, and the musical inspirations for the series.
Watch the entire interview below. “Dear White People” is streaming now on Netflix.