Watch closely: "Dear White People Vol. 2" opens a new chapter on race

The comedy's creator Justin Simien says "Vol. 2" dives into our forgotten past and "how sick secrets can make us"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published May 3, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Justin Simien (AP/Victoria Will/Netflix/Salon)
Justin Simien (AP/Victoria Will/Netflix/Salon)

A few episodes into the second season of Netflix's "Dear White People," dropping on Friday, the story starts to feel like some secret black history edition of "Clue." Its omniscient narrator (Giancarlo Esposito) consistently directs the viewer to "watch closely," before walking us through forgotten chapters of Winchester University's history, especially as they pertain to how the fictional Ivy League university deals with race and racism in the present day.

Through this intentionally directed lens, series creator Justin Simien uses "Dear White People" to address the poisonous practice of refusing to contend with the errors and crimes that are part of our collective past. Instead, he observes, we'd rather tumble into a sort of historical amnesia that maintains the illusion of comfort while dismissing real issues of social and political inequity (Kanye, we're looking at you).

"Keeping secrets from each other is that universal tie that binds," Simien observed in a recent phone conversation with Salon. This idea plays out within the comedy's second season story collage both interpersonally and in a more global sense.

The first season of "Dear White People," is due for a wider DVD and digital release on Tuesday, May 8, and like the film that inspires the series, it largely focuses on questions of self-identity. Biting satire propels its dialogue, accompanied by a pleasing, specifically stylized visual language and both conspire to blow apart the myth that there was ever such a thing as post-racial America.

While it illustrates how differently the world looks to people living in the same space, maintaining a tight focus on a group of Winchester's black undergrads, it also lets all viewers in on the joke.

Gifted campus radio host Sam White (Logan Browning) builds a brand centered on fiery polemics on racism on campus in part as a means of reconciling herself with her biracial identity, and what how her choice of lovers reflects on her blackness.

Sam's best friend Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherston) supports her even as she realizes she's getting tired of playing the wing-woman to a campus celebrity.

Season 2 — officially known as "Dear White People Vol. 2" — picks up weeks after the explosive town hall that marked the end of its freshman run, the emphasis is purposefully less on each personal journey than on the way a post-Trump world forces the students to look beyond themselves.

Now the proudly "woke" Reggie (Marque Richardson) grapples with knowing his life could have ended at a campus party simply because his skin was the wrong color.  The Dean's son Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is reconsidering his father's blueprint for success, which emphasizes accommodation and assimilation over antagonizing the powers that be. Sam's former bestie Coco (Antoinette Robertson) still embraces that model while Lionel (DeRon Horton) is figuring out where his place is among Winchester's gay community, a social stratification with its own navigational challenges.

Before all of that, the first episodes of the 10-part "Vol. 2" finds Sam and Joelle contending with a social media war mounted against them by a virulently racist and unidentifiable Twitter troll that goes by the handle @AltIvyW.

AltIvyW's escalating attacks on Sam coincide with the integration of Armstrong-Parker House, a dorm that has historically served as the nexus of black student life on campus. The trolling also emboldens the campus' conservative students, even leading the radio station to give a timeslot to a right-wing radio show titled, in an act of aggressive appropriation, "Dear Right People."Continuing the spirit of the show's opening acts, each of these individual snapshots ties in with the season's larger theme of facing buried truths head on, regardless of how uncomfortable it is to do so. Happily Simien and his writers broach these squeamish topics via sharp witticism delivered with rapid-fire certainty. The delight of "Dear White People" is that its humor hits, and hits hard, but always manages to land on its targets.

Simien spoke at length about what inspired the direction of these 10 new episodes, and what he hopes the new direction of "Dear White People" adds to the broader conversation about race and tribalism in the United States.

"I don't think we're a didactic show, but we certainly are trying to help diagnose the issues," Simien said. "I don't think we're a prescriptive, but I certainly felt a sense of urgency to get to the heart of how things like this could happen to such surprise, in a country where few things surprise us, and continue to surprise as time has gone on."

Let's talk about the huge kind of tonal difference between season 1 and season 2. It's obviously the second season was created when the public finally began to acknowledge that racism in America exists and our sensitivity to it had heightened. But was there any particular incident that inspired the season, or was there any particular theme you realized that you need drill down on?

Well, you know, Donald Trump won the presidency the day we stopped shooting season one. Actually, it was our last day shooting. So for me, what that did is it sort of gave me a much more heightened sense of urgency in terms of what it is the show was seeking to do. . . . It's that combined with what I felt was a very strange reaction to the press materials for the first season. We had a backlash that really superseded anything that we got from the movie, which was pretty well publicized by the time the show was coming out.

I took a moment to register that, to process it and sort of dig deeper. What I found was this sort of well of communities propped up by what we now know are bots: fake accounts or programmed accounts, which we now understand are directly from Russia, creating aggression on several different sides of the same ideological issue to sort of ramp up chaos and tension. That was very effective. It  allows a very small group of people to kind of control a very large portion of the narrative in this country. And that sort of led me down a series of rabbit holes, to what I think you can see in season two, which is an obsession with the past.

What I've found through my own research . . . is that fake news and misinformation and all of these themes are pretty well written into the country's history and DNA.  Political or historical Amnesia is pretty much required by Americans at every new sort of social juncture in our growth. We sort of have to forget that the country was born out of genocide. We have to forget, really, that even though slavery was abolished, we never sort of took any real meaningful actions to sort of prepare the country for the integration of African people into the citizenry.

It's really kind of surprising to know how many people really thought these were issues that we even got close to solving. I mean people really do feel like it's, 'case closed!' This is why it's so confusing to talk about these things. Black folks inherently know that something is wrong in this country with regards to race.  And I think a lot of white people know it, and a lot more know it now too, because of the Donald trump presidency.

But you know, there's a wall that we've hit because . . . you can't sort of have a conversation when you and the person you're talking to don't have the same historical context or education or understanding of how we got here. The conversation is just rhetoric, then. So part of reason the show's tone feels different is that you're seeing an obsession with secrets and the past, and how sick secrets can make us.

Let's go back really quickly to when you're talking about the reaction that you received the press materials. A lot of that reaction, as I recall, seemed to be about a lack of understanding about what "Dear White People" means, not only within the context of the script, but also in terms of how the show should be interpreted, who is the show speaking to and why there is this implication that issues of race need to be explained. 

With season 1, yes, there was genuinely a group of people who didn't understand the title or didn't understand where we're coming from, but what I found most interesting is that there were also a group of much more powerful people with more social capital, so to speak. David Duke, among them, who were choosing to misinterpret the title, sort of feigning outrage wasn't really genuine because they knew that it would drum up support.

People got really good at figuring out how to get people angry. You know, I remember having an exchange with one of these very popular, alt-right, leaders who has been banned from Twitter.  And I asked him, 'Why are you saying this? You don't really think this is true?' I don't remember exactly what I was saying, but that was the thrust of it.

And he responded with, 'Yeah, I know bro, but this is for the base.'  That's when the light bulb kind of went on, when I was like, oh my God, they are sort of openly and blatantly using the tools of civil rights and activism. They're using those same words like oppression, terms like 'silencing our voice' or 'trying to erase our voice,' taking those kinds of ideas but applying them to what was is ultimately a complete fiction on just about every level. Whether we're looking at the numbers, statistics, education rates, death rates, et cetera, it's just complete B.S. and an explicit twisting of the truth.

The first season was much more character driven than this one, but this time you use each person's story to kind of delineate a particular aspect of larger issues of race and class people seem to be almost tired of talking about. So when you were writing this season, how much did you think about how to convey these ideas not only with urgency, as you say, but with clarity?

I didn't want to just sort of continue season one. I felt like we got really great reviews and it would've been really easy to just kind of rest on that and keep making the show in the same mode. But I really fought against that.

One of the reasons that it's called volume two, is that I really wanted to treat it almost like a reboot a rather than just a continuation. And what that did is in the writers room we would have these sort of dual conversations. We would be talking about the characters and where we thought they would go. And then the other dialogue we were having was, how do these sort of interpersonal relationships these kids are having, how are they affected by, if at all, what's happening on a bigger societal, macro level?

So there's that larger idea of selective amnesia, and then there are the smaller ideas of, how does Joelle really feel about Reggie (Marque Richardson)? Or how are Sam and Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) really keeping their true feelings close to the chest even as they interact with each other and interact with each other's friends? It just felt like an interesting to explore this theme among everybody, and season 2 is a product of those conversations and that exploration.

Recently I was asked to talk about 'Roseanne' and whether it will be a show like plays a role in healing America, or that speaks to subjects in America that are concerning us all and unite us all. Now, no single show could possibly bear the weight of, you know, helping us to achieve world peace. Still,  I'm curious to hear your take on how and whether 'Dear White People' has been co-opted to kind of serve a purpose similar to that, and whether you kind of intended it to serve that purpose.

Well, I'm a Buddhist and — not to make this religious in any way, shape or form — but the reason I'm a Buddhist is because they do believe that when you work really hard to find something closer to an enlightenment moment for yourself, that's kind of the only way and best way of changing the world. So I do have my eye on really big things like that. I don't think I can achieve that with a television show. But honestly, the process of making this show requires me to get clearer and clearer and clearer about the issues that I'm dealing with and the issues that I'm talking about. That's the only way I'll have something new to say. I have no interest in sort of saying the same thing over and over again, season after season.

So it's a clarifying process for me, which in turn makes the show better and allows the audiences to, ideally, have new epiphanies or at the very least just be able to see aspects of their lives reflected in a surprising way. I think that's a really healing thing that's often underestimated about story. There is something very powerful to the fact that so many people showed up to see 'Black Panther.' Audiences [members] who are black saw themselves in really, really mainstream cultural conversations. And audience members who maybe never really could relate to aspects of blackness viewed it in a way that now, they can. They got some insight into, you know, just how human it is and just how, you know, similar to their own experience, the black experience can be. People were able to relate over things that were very much about race.

Whether or not we leave the theater ideologically complete and we immediately have the answers or not, just that sort of shared experience of empathy is very, very powerful. And you know, whether or not it's on a small scale or a big scale, I've seen [entertainment] move the needle. Like when you look back at history, um, you know, movements, it's not president and kings. It's the people. The people are moved by the stories that they see.  And if that's all I do, I'm very happy, you know.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland