SPOIL ALERT: Don’t read on if you haven’t watched the fourth and final season of âDear White People,â streaming now on Netflix.
When Justin Simien adapted his 2014 satirical film âDear White Peopleâ into a half-hour television series, he created a bible for the show that included a reference to Donald Trump becoming president. And then Trump did just that. When Simien was conceptualizing the fourth and final season of the Netflix comedy, he was writing in a fictional virus. And then COVID-19 hit.
By this point, he and his co-host Jaclyn Moore had already made plans for a future screenplay in addition to the final year of the main characters at the University of Winchester taking place in the final series of episodes. The Future Story takes place 15 years later in order to see the characters finally attempt to work out some things between themselves, while the final year story follows them as they prepare to take over the Winchester College Show. While the show “definitely exists in our world,” Moore notes, COVID couldn’t have happened in their senior year, or they wouldn’t have been on campus and there wouldn’t have been any way to put on the varsity show. , It was not the case. feel good for the last season. And so, they wrote a future pandemic in the other scenario to “show that it exists in our world without making you dwell on it.”
âDear White Peopleâ has never been a show to rest on its laurels, delving into deep themes of police brutality, sexual harassment and racism in its previous seasons, and always shifting perspectives. The last season was even more ambitious because it was also a musical season, says Simien Variety they had “chewed up impatiently since season 1” to do.
In this final round, Winchester allows his Black Student Union to take over the college show, a centuries-old tradition at many Ivy League colleges because, while the writers were working on the season, the Black Lives Matter movement experienced a resurgence on the heels. of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
âWhite people have discovered racism again,â recalls Simien. “And it’s like a diary to me – every season is barely veiled what’s going on in my life and that of the writers – so there was a lot going on with the performative alliance and how do you talk about racism when is the conversation performative? There are all these ideals about freedom and the escape from institutional racism, how does that fit in next to this focus on capitalism that we all need to have to survive here? And from those conversations other stories were born.
Moore notes that Trump and COVID weren’t the only major events “Dear White People” predicted.
âPolice violence and the use of guns was something that had been on our show since Season 1, and I think what we started to feel was that there was this feeling that all of a sudden, a lot of the things we had said on the show were becoming more and more mainstream. conversation, “Moore says.” We were drawn to the way predominantly white institutions pretended to be at the forefront of this conversation and sometimes used the Blacks and people of color as a PR shield. And so, that was the last part that seemed to really tie into that, which is Winchester, turning around and starting to use them. The problem is, you win in power, but at what cost?
The college show’s arc slowly unfolds throughout the season, as the characters first audition and then move on to rehearsal stages, performing 1990s hits from Missy Elliot to Montell Jordan to * NSYNC and Simien’s personal favorite, “Round and Round” by Tevin Campbell. There’s also an original song from the season, written by Siedah Garrett.
Simien and Moore brought in the actors to do âmock auditions,â as Simien puts it, to see âwhere people wereâ with musical abilities for this full season thread. They knew they could “tinker” with people singing, others rapping, and others dancing, if needed. Most of the song selection, ultimately, was less about the ability of the cast (they all turned out to have the chops) than what they could get the rights to and what they could afford within their budget. . âIt informed what I used, where and how much and how much I broke with words. It was reverse engineered that way, âsays Simien.
BSU’s takeover of the college show doesn’t come without opposition on campus from another black student group, Black AF, who views what BSU does as a minstrel show.
âRight now, I think being a progressive black is a difficult thing; you end up arguing with people you ultimately agree with. We are all trying to find our way, we all have these slightly different goals for ourselves and our community, but there is always strength in numbers, so how to close that gap and how to get back together – but also honor the nuances. things that each of our causes is fighting for? That’s why it was important for me that Black AF was against what they were doing, âexplains Simien.
It is only at the very end that audiences can watch a major element of the college show and realize that it is an element of activism in its own right, directly addressing some of the concerns. of Black AF and calling for the removal of the building in which they occur, which bears the name of a slave owner.
Unfortunately, the college show doesn’t have a happy ending. Reggie (Mark Richardson) surprises a suspicious White with a gun and shoots him before he can hurt anyone in the crowd. While the tragedy certainly could have been worse, Reggie is criticized for being a black kid who brought a gun to campus.
Simien says they wanted to come full circle with Reggie from Season 1, when he was the victim of police brutality on campus. But while the future storyline leaves audiences guessing what happened to Reggie until the very end, ultimately he did well.
âI wanted to say something about Reggie’s PTSD, which he’s been battling since season one – I wanted to say something about it that didn’t end in abject tragedy,â he explains. âHow this kind of show is supposed to end is that he gets shot and we all learn a deep and tragic lesson, and I thought the most drastic thing to do was not to let it be. what happened. What Reggie is going through is really horrible and it’s not fair and his potential is definitely reduced and threatened on several occasions because of what he’s been through, but damn it he’s found his joy anyway. This is the story I was to receive, and so this is the story I told.
The final season also delivered a kind of side story in the appearance of Coco (Antoinette Robertson) on the “Big House” reality show. It was “the last holdover from the movie we had never used,” Moore notes, and also a way for the writers of “Dear White People” to comment on the “incredibly uncomfortable racial dynamics” of real-world reality shows. , including “Big Brother” and “The Bachelor”.
âWe realized, speaking of this, that it was really a microcosm of how black people – especially black women – are treated in America. So it started to seem like a really big part of the show and almost like the flip side of what Sam was going through trying to do in the media, âshe says. âCoco wins, but even if you win you lose in some ways. When we see Coco in the future, she always feels at odds with what happened. It’s a complicated time for her and it impacts her, and even then it’s a lot of expectations: âIn what ways is my story more or less acceptable to people? “”
When Simien first got the call from Netflix that its fourth season would be its last, he wanted to find an aspect of the humanity of his characters that had yet to be explored. Coming out of a season of the show during which he was simultaneously working on his feature film “Bad Hair”, Simien felt drained of some of his usual creative energy. âI didn’t really know how to do what I love without it hurting me so much,â he admits. âI’ve been asked in my personal life, ‘How can I take this thing and find joy in it? This thing that I used to love is now this thing that I do to make money. I still like it, but the way I do it, I don’t really like it.
It became the entry into the future screenplay for him, writing his feelings into Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) experience as a writer who managed to turn his first three years in college into three books, but which is now blocked. Sam (Logan Browning) finds him at a book signing to convince him that they need to tell the story of their senior year – and especially their college music show – that inspires flashbacks. Although he is reluctant, they begin to work together, participating in video conferences with their former classmates to remember and reflect, and eventually come face to face for an in-person meeting.
âIn some ways, the questions Sam and Lionel have faced over this past year are questions that don’t go away. On the contrary, the stakes become higher and clearer, âsays Moore.
By telling stories across two timelines, the final season of âDear White Peopleâ ultimately had to provide two endings. The way the characters left their relationships at the end of their senior year had to leave enough room for them to have a place to go in the future storyline. But this future story, notes Simien, “is informed by the fact that they are getting together to talk about what happened in the past in the first place.”
âSome people had less than stellar results in their last year or really good results in their last year, and things turned around 15 years later. It would have been really wrong for everything to be perfect at the end. I haven’t been a senior for a long time, but I know everything that I thought was about to happen when I graduated didn’t work out, âhe laughs. âIn the future, nothing is really resolved between them except how they deal with it – their relationship with each other and how they balance their choices and how their choices ended. They make peace with it. If I’m going to tell a true story about being Black in America, unfortunately I can’t really give it a happy ending because we haven’t come to one yet – but I still wanted to give it a happy ending. hope.