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Dear White People Creator: The Alt-Right Trolls 'Really Helped Us'

Dear White People Creator: The Alt-Right Trolls 'Really Helped Us'

Dear White People

Justin Simien discussed the upside of a controversy, and how his show and America are perpetually responding to a racial crisis.


Prior to the release of Dear White People, trolls began a boycott of the Netflix series, which centers on black students at a fictional Ivy League college. On Twitter, members of the alt-right claimed the show was "anti-white" and even "promotes white genocide." They canceled their Netflix subscriptions and flooded social media channels with screen shots of this notification in an attempt to derail the production.

The effect was not what they desired.

This alt-right backlash "really helped us" in terms of publicity, revealed its creator, Justin Simien, at a Saturday Q&A at the talent agency William Morris Endeavor in Beverly Hills.

Simien pointed to Netflix's billboard campaign, "Dear White People: Bet You Think This Show Is About You," as part of the streaming service's successful marketing push "in getting our target audience excited." The show is also a hit with critics. On the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it boasts a rating of 100 percent.

Needless to say, Dear White People is not anti-white. The series, based on Simien's acclaimed 2014 film, centers on a biracial student, Sam White (Logan Browning), who hosts a radio show of the same name. White stirs controversy on campus for calling out issues like white privilege and cultural appropriation after a predominantly white fraternity hosts a blackface party.

The critically acclaimed series "is meant to be a provocative conversation-starter amongst people who normally don't talk to each other," said Simien. In light of the divisive political climate, the 34-year-old showrunner hopes to attract new viewers "who are not inclined to have a conversation about race, and that includes black people too" for its upcoming second season.

Events like the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., where a demonstrator protesting neo-Nazis and white supremacists was killed, underscore the need for this conversation, Simien said. It also exposed a sad reality of the United States.

"In America, we're perpetually in the aftermath of a race event that we're trying to figure out what the fuck to do with," said Simien, citing Ferguson and Charlottesville as examples. Likewise, the characters and events of his show are grappling with the consequences of a different racial event each season. For the first season, it was a blackface party. For the second, it is a protest that turns destructive.

"I won't say it's a formula, but I will say it's part of the world of the show. I'm not having to set up a race event each season -- there's always been one," Simien said.

At the discussion, Simien, who is black and gay, also revealed that the character of Lionel reflects the experience of his identity -- and is a vehicle for exploring what this identity means in America today.

"Lionel ... is a very specific journey of being black and gay. It's not everybody's journey. But it was my journey -- although I don't think I'm as socially awkward as Lionel is," said Simien.

"But the idea that I'm a version of 'black, gay' that I didn't see anywhere growing up, you know what I'm saying? Especially kids who are born in the '80s or before, there just weren't a lot of black gay men in the culture. So trying to navigate what that means -- that's the story I'm trying to tell with Lionel."

Simien was invited to speak about Dear White People by Black Gay Brunch, a society of black gay men who work in the entertainment industry. Ira Madison III, a Daily Beast writer and one of The Advocate's "50 Most Influential LGBTs in Media," moderated the Q&A. Guests included Blackbird's Patrik-Ian Polk, The Get Down's Tory Devon Smith, and organizers Cameron Johnson and Benjamin Cory Jones.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.