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‘Dear White People’: Creator Justin Simien on Season 2’s Surprising Cameos and Making that Most Meta Scene Happen

Simien also reveals how right-wing pundits and "Into the Woods" were major inspirations for the new season.

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

“Dear White People”

Adam Rose/Netflix

[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Dear White People” Season 2.]

In a season full of emotional highs and lows, perhaps the absolute peak of “Dear White People” Season 2 (or Volume 2, depending on who you talk to) came in Episode 10, when Samantha White met… Samantha White.

Well, only on a meta level, but it was still surreal in the best way to see Sam (Logan Browning) confront right-wing talk show pundit Rikki Carter (Tessa Thompson) just before Rikki’s big speech at Winchester University. This is because Thompson had originated the role of Sam White in the film version of “Dear White People,” adding an extra layer of context that, creator Justin Simien told IndieWire, was quite deliberate.

“I always loved the idea of acknowledging that the cast changed in some way,” he said. “I like to tie up all my loose ends and so I wanted to do something meta.”

According to Simien, the idea for the character came before the idea to have Thompson play her. “I was fascinated by the idea of the model minority, advocating against themselves,” he said. “It was a theme that kept coming up, and I thought that was really interesting. [James] Baldwin, of course — I always quote him — has a quote about how oppression doesn’t necessarily even have to come from the oppressor, if it’s done right. You just have to do it to yourself. I just thought that was interesting, and so we were coming up with different versions.”

From the inspiration point of “What would it be like if an Ann Coulter-type person came to Winchester?” came Simien’s feeling that “the more interesting version would be if she was a black woman, a woman of color.” Which led him to think of Thompson, with whom he still shared a “mutual love” in his words.

To get Thompson on set, the “Dear White People” team had to negotiate with HBO, as she was a series regular on “Westworld” at the time, but they were able to shoot with her for, according to Simien, about a day-and-a-half. That left no time for rehearsals on any of her scenes, though it wasn’t too much of an issue for Simien (who directed Episode 10).

“Logan and Tessa are both craftsmen, as well as artists,” he said. “So once they started, it was there. It was just my job to help mold it, get out of the way sometimes, and film it well. But, the two of them literally could just recite the phone book back and forth, and it would be the most compelling thing you’ve ever seen.”

It’s hardly a list of names and numbers, though — the scene itself is a fascinating one for both characters but especially Sam, because as Simien put it, “I think Sam is terrified of being stuck in this character she’s created for herself. Even though it comes from a real place, and she does care about these issues, does she care about them all the time? Is she a 10 all the time? Is she the person people expect her to be all the time? Because to be that person would essentially be to become Rikki, maybe a Rikki on a different ideological spectrum, but Rikki nonetheless.”

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE Season 2 Logan Browning

Added Simien, “I think what strikes [Sam] is the dichotomy between who Rikki pretends to be and who Rikki is. I think anyone who thinks of themselves as a brand and not a person has to face that day. Which one of these people am I? Because people don’t stay the same. We’re always changing. We’re always tastes and interests and whatever it might be, we’re always changing, so, but brands don’t change. They stay the same, so there’s always that tension. Especially people who’ve been at it for years. People you love, you see them on-screen and you see them off-screen, and they’re more and more different the longer and longer it goes.”

The scene was shot late at night, due to scheduling constraints, which adds a notable edge. “I wanted it to almost feel like a glitch in the Matrix,” Simien said. “The two Sams, talking to each other. We’re not as surreal as, say, ‘Atlanta,’ but I wanted the surreal moment, when it was them in darkness, except for the color green, which symbolizes a bunch of things this season,” he said. “We sort of wanted them to feel like they were in a sunken place of some kind.”

The character of Rikki also opened the show up to discussing the current game being played by her and her real-life counterparts in the media, which comedian Michelle Wolf recently called out at the White House Correspondents Dinner. “More power to her for doing that, because it is a trap,” Simien said. “We have to do this story so that we get the rating so that we get the clicks, and all that stuff, it’s not doing what news is supposed to do, which is to educate the electorate. That’s what news I supposed to do. It’s not doing that. It’s entertaining the electorate, but it’s pretending to be information, because it’s not. It’s actually entertainment. It’s not based in reality.”

As Simien observed, “When you sit and watch the news, and it’s really just two sides of talking heads, who are but paid to show up and argue their point, and not actually have a discussion, I have no idea what the merit of that is supposed to be. It doesn’t do anything. It does not inform anyone. It doesn’t move any argument or discussion forward. Literally, these are two people being paid to not. It’s like watching boxing. What is the point? I don’t get it. I really don’t.”

Thompson wasn’t the only notable cameo of the season — Lena Waithe’s appearances in Season 2 had been common knowledge prior to the show’s premiere — but perhaps the most surprising moment of the season came at the very end, as Giancarlo Esposito, the previously unidentified narrator of the series, stepped out of the shadows to reveal himself as part of a secret society Sam and Lionel (DeRon Horton) had been trying to track down.

Esposito’s schedule wasn’t easy to work out either — he’s a series regular on “Better Call Saul,” among other roles — but “he is just such a joy to work with. [He’s] a true, genuine fan of the show.” In fact, Simien shared that he does the temp narration for each episode, and when Esposito watches the early cuts, “he’s got the best laugh. And as he’s listening to the narration, he’s, like, ‘oh-ho-ho, wonderful.’ I mean, he is just the best.”

Simien said that the idea to make Esposito’s narrator (whoever he might be) an on-screen presence came at some point during the making of Season 1. “Honestly, it probably comes from how much ‘Into the Woods’ meant to me when I saw it as a kid,” he said, referring to the Stephen Sondheim musical which plays with fairy tale tropes. “Just the embrace of traditional narrative, while also simultaneously deconstructing it.”

Though technically, the roots of the idea go back even further. “Even from the beginning, I never wanted it to be a straightforward narrator. We made fun of the fact that we have a narrator, ’cause it’s such a common TV cliché. It’s such a crutch. I don’t want to use a narrator as a crutch, so I thought the more interesting way to do it was to have him be a part of the story, which you never really expect. In fact, the person telling you the story is just as important to consider as the story you’re being told, and this season has everything to do with what’s really true, and is what I’ve been told the truth and what is being hidden from me. I just felt it was a really great subconscious way to just hammer that on home, as a last beat of the season.”

“Dear White People” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.

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