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Plus: why Lionel's story isn't about homophobia
Dear White Peoplecreator Justin Simien, who endured really mean tweets and calls for boycotts of his Netflix series before it even debuted Friday, knows full well that some people have their cheeks clinched really tight over the title of his show.
He's used to it though. His 2014 movie had the same name, so he's spent years explaining the title, defending the title and, as he did in this long, insightful article, writing about the title and why he chose it. It's a passionate, humble and confident statement from an artist with many compelling points, but two that stand out most are: 1) Your reaction to the title is exactly the point, and says more about you than the title itself and 2) Get over yourself. (This is a comedy, after all.)
The irony of the vitriol, of course, is that Dear White People presents all its characters' points of view about race and prejudice with empathy and respect, including the white ones. You see white people trying to understand their black friends; you see white people display alarming prejudice. You see black people tear each other down; you see black people support each other and be unified against structural racism. (And the African and Asian characters feeling shut out.) Nobody's a hero, really; nobody walks away unscathed.
Dear White People: you'll like this show a lot
"When [people who've said they're offended by the title] get around to watching, and they realize their reaction plays a part it kind of has a meta meeting," Simien says. "And so if people are offended by 'White People' in the title, that says a lot. Because there's nothing inherently mocking, demeaning or mean in the title. So the fact that you're filling in all these blanks, it enhances what the show is about and what it's trying to say. It forces people to look at themselves and their knee-jerk reactions."
That's if you're willing, of course. Judging by comments online (a pastime for only the most committed masochist) many won't give the show a try -- which is a travesty because it's really funny. What they'll miss is a well-crafted attempt by Simien to talk about racism, sure, but also a way for us to pay attention to how we're not paying attention to one another.
"There's no way we can unravel this thing unless we're honest abut how we got here," Simien says. "And it's not just...a group of people (white people) being evil. It's a bunch of people with really good intentions kind of f--king up. I just felt like we can't really be honest to all that unless we're being empathetic to all the characters, including the white ones. We've got to be honest about that stuff. If we keep vilifying each other, we're not having a conversation."
He said the model for the series is a style of African "crisis" theater in which each character represents a point of view in the village; despite everyone's best intentions, chaos ensues and "everyone in the audience is supposed to go into their village and figure out what to do in real life." If you come away more cognizant that the people you're arguing with could be your allies, you're doing it right.
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Simien says he's well aware of what it feels like to be judged prematurely and misunderstood; he is, after all, a black man from the South (Houston, Texas) who's also gay. That double whammy of outsider-ness is depicted in the series through Lionel (DeRon Horton), the shy news reporter gradually coming to accept his sexuality amid the racial divide boiling on campus of the fictional Winchester University. Somewhat curiously, Lionel's sexuality is greeted with way more enthusiasm than homophobia -- most people are more welcoming of him being gay than he is -- a tick of the story that's reflective of millennials' experience but skips external drama. That's deliberate too, Simien says.
"Part of my my struggle with being gay," he told TVGuide.com, "was that a lot of my homophobia was internalized because of the cues that I was received. I didn't see anybody like myself in the culture. RuPaul was the closest to a gay out black man that I had growing up. I've experienced homophobia, been called the [F] word but a lot of my experience was my assumption that I didn't belong. That's just one of the things I wanted to play with Lionel and work through. I experienced more racism than homophobia. That's the story closest to me and that's the story I wanted to tell through Lionel."
Lionel, like all the show's principal players -- head provocateur Samantha (Logan Browning), her white boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amadori) and Sam's sometimes antagonist Cocoa Conners (Antoinette Robertson) -- is given a compassionate gaze, even while saying and doing really dumb things. But that's why they're so engrossing, so funny and so good at making us understand one another a little better. Says Simien, "We really wanted to be empathetic to everybody on the show."
Dear White People is now streaming on Netflix.