SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched the fourth and final season of “Dear White People,” streaming now on Netflix.
When Justin Simien was adapting his 2014 satirical film “Dear White People” 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 wrote in a fictional virus. And then COVID-19 hit.
At that point, he and co-showrunner Jaclyn Moore had already worked out plans for a future storyline in addition to the main characters’ senior year at Winchester University playing out in the final run of episodes. The future story is set 15 years later in order to see the characters finally attempting to resolve some things between them, while the senior year story follows them as they prepare to take over Winchester’s varsity show. Although the show “definitely exists in our world,” Moore notes, COVID couldn’t happen during their senior year, or they wouldn’t have been on campus and there would have been no way to do the varsity show, which didn’t feel right for the final season. And so, they wrote a future pandemic into the other storyline to “show this exists in our world without making you dwell on it.”
“Dear White People” has never been a show to rest on its laurels, diving into deep themes of police brutality, sexual harassment and racism in its previous seasons, and always changing up points of view. The final season was even more ambitious because it was also a musical season, something Simien tells Variety they had been “chomping at the bit since Season 1” to do.
In that final run, Winchester allows its Black Student Union to take over the varsity show, a time-honored tradition in many Ivy league colleges because, while the writers were working on the season, the Black Lives Matter movement saw a resurgence on the heels of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
“White people, anew, discovered racism,” recalls Simien. “And it’s like a diary for me — each season is thinly veiled what’s going on in my and the writers’ lives — so there was a lot going on with performative allyship and how do you talk about racism when the conversation is performative? There are all of these ideals about freedom and escaping institutional racism, how does that sit alongside this focus on capitalism we all have to have to survive here? And out of those conversations came more stories.”
Moore notes that Trump and COVID weren’t the only major events that “Dear White People” predicted.
“Police violence and weaponizing was something our show was concerned about since Season 1, and I think what we started to feel was there was this sense that suddenly a lot of the things we had been saying on the show were becoming more and more a mainstream conversation,” says Moore. “We were drawn to the ways in which predominantly white institutions were pretending to be on the forefront of that conversation and using Black folks and people of color as a PR shield at times. And so, that was the last piece of it that really felt like it really connected to this, which is Winchester, turning around and starting to use them. The problem is you’re gaining power, but at what cost?”
The varsity show arc plays out slowly over the course of the season, as characters first audition and then move into the rehearsal stages, performing 1990s hits from Missy Elliot to Montell Jordan to *NSYNC and Simien’s personal favorite, “Round and Round” from Tevin Campbell. There is also one original song in the season, written by Siedah Garrett.
Simien and Moore had the cast come in to do “fake auditions,” as Simien puts it, in order to see “where people were at” with musical ability for this integral final season thread. They knew they could “cobble it together” with some people singing, some rapping, and some just dancing, if need be. Most of the song selection, in the end, was less about cast ability (they all proved to have the chops) and more about what they could get the rights to and could afford in their budget. “That informed what I used where and how much of it and how much I broke up with words. It was reverse-engineered in that way,” Simien says.
BSU taking over the varsity show doesn’t come without on-campus opposition from another Black student group, Black AF, who considers what the BSU is doing akin to a minstrel show.
“Right now I think being a Black progressive is a difficult thing; you end up getting into a lot of fights with people you ultimately agree with. We’re all trying to find our way, we all have these slightly various goals for ourselves and our community, but there’s still strength in numbers, so how do we bridge that gap and how do we come back together — but also honor the nuanced things that each of our causes are fighting for? That’s why it was important for me to have Black AF be against what they were doing,” Simien says.
It isn’t until the very end that the audience can watch a major piece of the varsity show and realize that it it is a piece of activism of its own, directly responding to some of the concerns Black AF had and calling for the removal of the building they are performing in, which is named for a slave owner.
Unfortunately, the varsity show does not have a happy ending. Reggie (Marque Richardson) clocks a suspicious white guy with a gun and shoots him before he can harm anyone in the crowd. While the tragedy certainly could have been worse, Reggie faces criticism for being a Black kid who brought a gun onto campus.
Simien says they wanted to bring Reggie’s arc full circle from Season 1, when he was a victim of police brutality on campus. But while the future storyline keeps audiences guessing as to what happened to Reggie until the very end, ultimately, he came out of it OK.
“I wanted to say something about Reggie’s PTSD, which he has been battling since the first season — I wanted to say something about that that didn’t end in just abject tragedy,” he explains. “How this kind of show is supposed to end is that he gets shot and we all learn a deep, tragic lesson, and I thought the most radical thing to actually do was to not have that be what happened. What Reggie goes through is really horrific and it’s not fair and his potential is definitely clipped and endangered many times because of what he went through, but fuck it, he found his joy anyway. That’s the story I needed to receive, and so that’s the story that I told.”
The final season also delivered a side story of sorts in Coco’s (Antoinette Robertson) appearance on the reality show “Big House.” This was “the last vestige of the movie that 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.”
“We realized, in talking about that, it really was a microcosm of how Black people — especially Black women — are treated in America. So it started to feel like a very vital piece of the show and almost like the other side of the coin for what Sam was going through of trying to make it in the media,” she says. “Coco wins, but even if you win, you lose in some ways. When we see Coco in the future, she’s still feeling conflicted about what happened. It’s a complicated moment for her and it takes a toll on her, and even then so much of it is about expectations: ‘What are the ways in which my story is more or less palatable to people?'”
When Simien first got the call from Netflix that his fourth season would be his final one, he wanted to find an aspect of his characters’ humanity that had yet to be explored. Coming off a season of the show during which he was simultaneously working on his feature “Bad Hair,” Simien felt drained of some of his usual creative energy. “I wasn’t really sure how to do what I love without it hurting so much,” he admits. “I was tasked in my personal life with, ‘How do I take this thing and find joy in it again? This thing I used to love is now this thing I do to make money.’ I still love this, but the way I’m doing it I don’t really love.”
That became the entry into the future storyline for him, writing his feelings into Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) experience as an author who successfully turned his first three years at college into three books, but is now stuck. Sam (Logan Browning) finds him at a book signing to convince him they need to tell the story of their senior year — and specifically their musical varsity show — which inspires the flashbacks. Although he is reluctant, they begin working together, hopping on video conference calls with their former classmates to reminisce and reflect, and eventually coming face-to-face again for an in-person reunion.
“In some ways the questions that Sam and Lionel are dealing with in that senior year are questions that don’t go away. If anything, the stakes become higher and clearer,” Moore says.
In telling stories across two timelines, “Dear White People’s” final season ultimately had to provide two endings. How characters left their relationships at the end of their senior year had to leave enough room open for them to have somewhere to go in the future storyline. But that future story, Simien notes, “is informed by them coming back together to talk about what happened in the past in the first place.”
“Some people had less than stellar results in their senior year or really great results in their senior year, and things flipped, 15 years later. It would have been really false for everything to be perfect at the end. I haven’t been a senior for a long time, but I know that whatever I thought was about to happen when I graduated did not work out,” he says with a laugh. “In the future, nothing is really resolved between them except for how they deal with it — their relationship with each other and how they reconcile their choices and how their choices netted out. They’re making a peace with that. If I’m going to tell a truthful story about being Black in America, unfortunately, I can’t really give it a happy ending because we have not arrived at one yet — but I still wanted to give it hope.”