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'Dear White People' creator says racism's 'evergreen' presence keeps series relevant

The series’ fourth and final season is now streaming on Netflix.
A scene from the fourth season of Netflix's "Dear White People."
A scene from the fourth season of Netflix's "Dear White People."Lara Solanki / Netflix

Much has changed since the “Dear White People” movie premiered in theaters in January 2014, but many things — including the pervasiveness of racism — have remained the same, according to the creator of the film and subsequent TV series. 

“That’s the thing about racism,” Justin Simien told NBC News. “It’s evergreen.” 

The film, about Black students at an Ivy League college, debuted in the middle of President Barack Obama’s second term, when, according to Simien, “it was taboo for liberal white people to talk about racism.” The Netflix series, now in its fourth and final season, first dropped in April 2017, during the Trump administration and well into the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“The movie was the Obama years,” Jaclyn Moore, a showrunner and executive producer on the series, said. “People were saying racism is over, we are passed this, we have a Black president. Why are we still talking about this?’ and the show is the reckoning we are dealing with today.”

Justin Simien attends the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Justin Simien attends the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, 2020, in Park City, Utah.Fred Hayes / Getty Images for SAGindie

Simien said those who have been watching the show over the past several years “can see the evolution of the conversation” about racism in America. 

“Now, we are dealing with white folks who are so into it, their performative activism is almost irksome,” he said. 

The latest season, which is now streaming on Netflix, the satirical drama has been transformed into a musical, filled with R&B, hip-hop and pop classics from the ‘90s.

Simien said the pandemic and various movements dedicated to addressing race in America have helped keep his series relevant over the years. 

“People joined the party and marched and spoke out for the first time, contributing goodwill thinking marching is enough, but we are still very much in it and dealing with it,” he said of racism in the U.S. “The pandemic squeezed the life out of people, literally, and the economy, and marginalized people, as always, were hit the hardest. Then we saw racism get much worse for Black and brown people, but the conversation was given cover by the racial reckoning, and now people are tired of talking about racism again.”

In addition to tackling modern-day racism, including police violence and cultural appropriation, “through a Black lens,” the series also addresses LGBTQ issues, such as coming out and living with HIV, through a queer lens. The final season also addresses issues such as sex work — which disproportionately affects certain parts of the LGBTQ and Black communities — with a nuanced and compassionate point of view. 

Moore attributes the show’s inclusive representation to Simien’s leadership and the diverse team he put together. 

“With Justin being a gay Black man and me being a trans woman — and the space he’s created for me to bring my full, lived experiences to work — we get to tell truly meaningful and rich stories,” she said. “I was a sex worker for a very long time. That was something I used to finance my dreams of writing and telling stories. I wouldn’t be here without doing that work.”

Moore said sex work, like any job, can be “good or bad or neutral.” 

“We often hear about the trauma and the bad parts, which there’s a lot of and it’s important to call attention to it whenever possible, but we also wanted to show that, like some jobs, the work can be fun. That’s why the sex work [musical] number is a joyful one in the show,” she explained. 

Simien said having a perspective like Moore’s has been invaluable. 

“That’s also why it’s critical when you talk about representation in media, you’re talking about the people behind the camera just as much as you’re talking about who’s on-screen,” he said. 

When asked about his decision to make the fourth and final season of “Dear White People” a musical, Simien said he wanted to "find the joy in creating."

“Changing it up inspires me and keeps me coming back each season,” he added. 

He also lamented that, “If you’re Black making Black stuff or queer making queer stuff, you can’t create anything without it being political.”

“Our existence, whether being LGBTQ or Black or both, is inherently political. We don’t get the freedom to just be — mainly because we don’t give it to ourselves,” he said. “I wanted to really show our enthusiasm as marginalized people, our joy in doing what we want to do with our lives, and even the passion for activism and creating change. I wanted to show who we are versus who we have to be.”

From NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” to Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” each episode balances characters' joy and pain by providing musical interludes to bring out their states of mind.

Simien said each track’s purpose is to serve the character.

“When a song happens, conflict is worked through,” he said. “Like when the group of sex workers approach the Black Student Union for help. The reason there’s a song there is to help get the character over a hump in the dialogue.” 

In addition to using the show as a catalyst for conversations around topics such as racism, sex work and living with HIV, Simien hopes the viewers, like the characters, will remember to find the joy in humanity.  

“Racism hasn’t ended, and it’s not going to anytime soon, so think about how you find something in your life that’s emotionally satisfying. Figure out how to find some joy,” he said. “I knew if I didn’t do that for myself, I couldn’t do this work, and I think that’s true for a lot of people facing the obstacles of moving forward in life. It’s hard, but the important thing is you can’t just give up hope.”

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