SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you’ve watched the second season of “Dear White People” on Netflix.
As with its first season, the sophomore outing of “Dear White People” doesn’t shy away from tackling hot topics — including the alt-right, racial bias, interracial relationships, and a mysterious secret society.
“I was getting into all of these historical pieces of information that we as American citizens don’t normally come into contact with unless we seek it out,” series creator Justin Simien tells Variety. “All of it kind of equaled, to me, the theme of being as sick as your secrets.”
And at the top of his list was the conversation about race. “The reason we can’t really have a meaningful relationship about race is because not everybody is on the same about what slavery was, how it ended, what happened after it ended — these are not things you’re taught in school, these are things you either learn because you’re black and you need or learn or because you sought out the information,” he says. “So the idea of misinformation and secrets felt really good in terms of the plot and where characters were going, but it also felt like a way to talk about this bigger thing that I felt happening in our country.”
Simien was first “really oddly inspired” by the “insane” alt-right reaction to the show’s first season, and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser adds that they also wanted to address the atmosphere of fake news. That’s what led to the story of Sam (Logan Browning) being harassed by an internet troll with incorrect information. Midway through the season he was revealed to be Winchester Independent writer Silvio (D.J. Blickenstaff).
It would have been “so expected and boring” had the harasser turned out to be a white person, explains Simien, who wanted to “twist the needle” in the storytelling.
“When we said in the room, ‘I think it’s Silvio,’ we all went ‘No! Oh…’ and that was the reaction we wanted the audience to have, so that’s why we knew it was the right way to go,” he says.
But he also wanted to use the story as a chance to comment on how at certain points, oppressed people start to oppress themselves.
“The kind of gross genius of the alt-right is that they’ve been able to appropriate the tactics of progressive movements,” Simien says. “And they love when they find a minority or a person of color where they can say, ‘See, we’re not racist because this person agrees, too!’ And that person is put on a pedestal and paraded around.”
The more Simien looked into such behaviors, the more he wondered about the “why” behind them, which also led to the creation of Tessa Thompson’s character Rikki Carter, an African-American woman who became a talking head for the alt-right.
“She’s smart enough to know what she’s doing, which makes it even more chilling,” Simien says. “There really is this trade off that they get where, yes, they’re saying all of these things but they have access to all of this kind of power and acclaim that maybe they wouldn’t get [otherwise].”
And he had a point he wanted to make: “There was this scene in my head that I had to get out on paper that I felt like got to the heart about what is so insidious about how the alt-right is operating and recruiting people against their best interest,” he says.
Putting Sam up against such political opposition this season was a chance for the rest of the writers and producers to get to flesh her out more fully. In the first season, Simien says, “outside of her relationship with Gabe, you weren’t really able to get inside her head [and learn] what makes her tick and what is the experience of being a biracial person and how does that affect your relationship with your parents and with yourself?”
Sam not only got sucked into responding to Silvio online and had a face-off with Rikki, but also finally had to confront the end of her relationship with Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) and say goodbye to her father (Robert Curtis Brown). When her father dies, Sam is “forced to really embrace all he was and how big a part of herself he is,” explains Bowser. “We got a deeper look into some of Sam’s regret about not understanding herself and her relationship with her white father,” she says. “I think he might be more present in her decision-making and how she moves forward in the world.”
The white gaze became literal this season as Gabe worked on a documentary about race relations on campus, in great part because of an “awakening” he had after calling the cops to the house party in the first season, which led Reggie (Marque Richardson) to having a gun pulled in his face.
“That caused him to do a little soul-searching and try to figure out what he could do to try to improve our human condition and the way we interact and perceive each other,” Bowser says.
Adds Simien, “One of the reasons why I liked the title ‘Dear White People’ was because in a lot of ways these characters always feel like they’re in reaction to a white gaze — they always feel like they have to tell them how they’re actually feeling or ‘I’m not actually this way.’ What does that do to a person to have the idea of race applied to them?”
As Gabe asked tough questions of his interviewees — and as they moved through the newly integrated Armstrong-Parker dorm in general — many of the characters felt set apart from each other because of race.
“As a black person you do have to respond to these things — but there’s a cost to that,” Simien notes.
When it came to Sam and Gabe having it out with each other, Bowser felt it was important that the characters actually have something of a resolution, not only for their own growth but also to explore something that is universally relatable — the desire for closure.
“I think there’s a little bit of wish fulfillment in that these two people get to have the conversation that most people never have — no matter what their issues are with each other, they never get to dive this deeply into whatever it is and be as candid and emotionally raw,” Bowser says.
Similarly, so did Reggie and Troy (Brandon P. Bell) have to come to terms with their very different responses to the trauma they suffered during altercations with campus police in season 1.
“I think so often people do that gun violence episode or the n-word episode and then after the characters are fine,” Simien says. “But the truth is that’s kind of a part of the lie that make people go, ‘Oh black people are just complaining. They seemed fine, why are they complaining now?’ And it’s because we don’t talk about the fact that trauma doesn’t just happen and go away. When your humanity is reduced in front of all of your peers, that’s not a thing that you ever forget.”
But, Simien points out, the key difference between Reggie and Troy is that Troy didn’t feel the weight of the experience the same way Reggie did.
“In a lot of ways Troy chose the moment for himself because he needed something — anything — to break out of his shell that his dad had put him in,” Simien says, adding that Troy didn’t have a gun in his face.
“We wanted to see these two black men that have profoundly different experiences of being black men, have different levels of privilege and class, different understandings of the life, be friends and literally show the dichotomy and the range of experiences. They’re both valid experiences and they’re both realistic and they’re both traumatized in their own way by the same thing. It manifests differently for different people.”
Later in the season Sam got sucked into Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) quest to find the truth behind a so-called secret society at Winchester University, and this allowed a little bit of an escape from her grief.
“Because we were dealing with some heavier aspects of our characters’ lives we felt we needed to balance that out — but also present the past as prologue,” says Bowser. “I think where we are now has everything to do with where we come from, so we just went all the way back to these things that still inform our society and people’s attitudes about each other and how certain institutions function, particularly Winchester, which I think is a microcosm for America.”
Adds Simien, “there’s certainly a secret society component to being at an Ivy League that I think really does reflect America and reflect race relations in America.”
Revealing the narrator (Giancarlo Esposito) to be an in-the-flesh character in the show was another way for the show to “humanize and surprise and subvert expectations,” Simien adds.
And while the writers and producers like the secret society story because it taps into the theme that things are not often what they seem on the surface, they also see it as a way to explore the idea of having to find an answer within one’s self as opposed to looking for someone else to save the day.
“It’s really tempting to be a black person and just hope Obama comes back to save everything, but the truth is, we are the black citizenry, we are the people, and we have all kinds of powers,” Simien says. “We can keep waiting for a hero to fix us, but that’s sort of how we ended up with Donald Trump — there was a group of people who just assumed this guy was going to solve all their problems. So, at the end of the day, all we have is ourselves, and I thought that was kind of an interesting metaphor for the black experience and the question of ‘Well, what do we do about racism?’ We have to look at ourselves, over and over again, and it sucks, but there’s kind of no other way out.”