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‘Dear White People’ Creator Justin Simien on How Season 1 ‘Backlash’ Motivated Big Stories in Season 2

The "Dear White People" director stopped by IndieWire's Very Good TV Podcast to talk about how he learned to fight Twitter trolls with truth — and history.

Dear White People Season 2 Justin Simien

Justin SImien

Adam Rose / Netflix

With a title like “Dear White People,” Justin Simien knew his Netflix show was never going to slip under the radar. After all, the director had already gone through a trial run years earlier, when the conversation began.

“With the movie, there were people who were like, ‘Is this racist?’ or ‘Is it going to be like black people talking down to white people?’ People were confused about it,” Simien said in an interview with IndieWire. “People were wondering if racism still existed — if that was a thing in 2014.”

Still, things changed when Simien turned his Sundance hit into an ongoing series. When Season 1 hit in April 2017, reactions weren’t just confused, they were angry — or so it seemed.

“With Season 1 in particular, the animus and the vitriol was so targeted and so well-organized that I sensed there was something behind it that was more than met the eye,” Simien said. “I realized I was being okeydoked. Half the time there’s not even a real person behind these accounts, or if there is– I remember comparing language, and [realizing], ‘Oh, these five accounts are the same person. There’s no way they’re not. They misspell the same words.’ [laughs]”

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

Simien knew there were mountains of glowing praise out there for the first season that won the Audience Award at SXSW and earned a Gotham nomination for Breakthrough Series — not to mention a spot on IndieWire’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2017 list — but he kept getting sucked into Twitter fights. So what did he do? He put it into his show.

“Sam has a show in the show called ‘Dear White People,'” he said. “So the response to my show is literally like research for how the student body is going to respond to her show.”

In the first episode of Season 2, Sam (Logan Browning) is maliciously trolled by an unidentified alt-right account known only by its handle, @AltIvy_W. Though she’s advised against it, she ends up losing nights of sleep (and loads of classwork) while trying to out-duel a user who spews provocative hate without any sense of logic.

Simien said he never “went as hard or as long as Sam did,” but the scene did result from his time spent toiling away with Twitter trolls.

“I realized how much energy it was sucking away from me; this feeling that I always have to respond, I always have to react,” he said. “I was falling for it. This is another form of oppression — making me feel like I constantly have to react and respond to this insanity. It’s really just helping them seem more boss for standing up to who they think of as Goliath, and it’s like, ‘I am a black dude that has fought really hard to be here. You’re tearing down something that was an uphill battle — to get something like this on the air and to get people to talk about it. Like, we’re already disadvantaged. You don’t need to do all this on top of it.'”

But Season 2 goes beyond creating a scene or two to exemplify Simien’s experience. The Chapman University graduate spent time between seasons studying the history of race relations in America and “trying to find different angles” to incorporate into the Season 2 discussion.

Dear White People Season 2 Tessa Thompson Justin Simien

“I really delved into a lot of research about race,” he said, “and I found this constant theme of erasure and covering up what just happened, historically. That just came up again and again and again. Even though misinformation and fake news and anonymous bots all seem like a new thing, the anonymity [and] the purposeful miseducation of people has been going on since slavery was abolished.”

That provided Simien a bridge between past and present. Each episode of “Dear White People” Season 2 opens with a historical framing, and then current events play out that connect the season’s themes — including the motivation for Twitter trolls before there was even a Twitter to troll.

“Because we’ve never been able, as a country, to be honest about this stuff, it’s still here,” Simien said regarding anonymous attacks on persecuted individuals (and truth in general). “It’s in a different form. It’s on Twitter. We think these are new things now, but it isn’t new. For me, that experience of the so-called ‘backlash’ to last season was a perfect segue into these characters’ lives going forward.”

“As I sort of peeled back that layer,” Simien said, “I realized there really is a sort of concerted effort to weaponize and stoke outrage in order to get your basic side in, in order to build a following, in order to, frankly, erase things from the culture that certain people just don’t like.”

“Dear White People” looks to bring truth back to the table, and Simien is ready to defend it wherever he can.

Listen to the full interview with Justin Simien below. “Dear White People” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.

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