INTERVIEW: ‘Dear White People’ Talks Race and Cyberbullying at PaleyFest Event

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Marque Richardson, DeRon Horton, John Patrick Amedori, Logan Browning, Antoinette Robertson, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Justin Simien, Ben Travers

How do we talk about race in our polarized society? Whether it’s person to person or on social media, the conversation about diversity and the experiences of minorities is more important than ever. Film and TV are slowly coming around to the necessity of diverse voices. One such pioneering studio is Netflix, particularly with their show, “Dear White People,” now in its second season.

The cast and creator of Netflix’s “Dear White People” gathered together at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills to talk about the most recent season of the show. Topics ranged from race, collegiate life, abortion, and PTSD. But don’t worry, laughs were still able to be had, as the tight-knit cast found ways to joke around and lighten up the mood. This mirrors the show’s tone. It’s able to tackle series topics, but add doses of comedy to bring out the color in the points it’s trying to make.

Ashley Blaine Featherson, Justin Simien,

Featuring a predominantly black cast and crew, “Dear White People” serves as a calling card for the power of diversity. This fact is not lost on creator Justin Simien, who is happy to be part of the movement to bring diversity to TV and film. “I think ‘Dear White People’ has been a part of proving there is an audience for smart, interesting, artful TV and movies that have people of color and black faces,” said Simien. “I’m not going to say ‘if it wasn’t for us’ but I know that we’ve played a part in showing an audience will show up and that they’re there and they’re excited and they’re thirsty for these stories.”

While the first season followed closely to Simien’s 2014 film of the same name, season two ventured off into new territory not covered in the original film. This was a source of excitement, rather than fear, for Simien. “It was so freeing. [In Season One], we know we have to bridge people who saw the movie into the show and introduce people who didn’t see the [film],” said Simien. “In season two, now we’ve built the foundation so we can fly.” That’s exactly what they did. Season two made waves for bringing back the star of the original film, Marvel juggernaut Tessa Thompson, for a guest appearance as a right wing news correspondence.

Cyberbullying takes center stage this season. While the advent of the internet creates a new plane for hate to be unleashed, the dissemination of hateful speech isn’t new. “I think the idea of digging into the secret histories of Winchester, which is a stand in for America, is very important,” said Simien. “One of the reasons we can’t talk about these things in the present day is because none of us can agree what got us here. There’s no one invested in teaching us all what happened after slavery and where we are now. Everyone’s more invested in telling us, ‘This is it. This is the American Dream.’ I’m really proud to have found a way to introduce this in a narrative, in a comedy of all things.”

John Patrick Amedori, Logan Browning, Ashley Blaine Featherson,

The show uses this as a catalyst to explore secret societies and the intrinsic racism in certain campuses. Our lead character, Sam, played by Logan Browning, engages in a battle with an internet troll, named AltIvy that spawns many copycats on campus more than willing to espouse their racist agenda.

“I had this extreme empathy. I was concerned for Sam. She’s being attacked at every angle. It’s unsafe when someone is at the center of so much hostility like that,” said Browning upon reading the script. “I kinda terrified me as the season went on. … It escalated and elevated in a way that I hope makes people think twice before they bully someone else online.”

While hate speech is nothing new in this country, the cast was up for talking about the nuances of internet hate speech and how platforms like Twitter have become breeding grounds for these insults. “No one seems to listen anymore,” said Browning. “I hope a show like ‘Dear White People’ invites people to read about the politics and racial divide from someone else’s perspective so we can find some sort of commonality. If we are all just talking, yelling heads, then we aren’t getting anywhere.”

Marque Richardson

This type of cyberbullying involving race feels all too relevant in today’s society. The show expertly dramatizes the events black students have to go through on a daily basis that other people may not even notice. When asked about his character, Reggie, and his struggle in season two after having a gun pulled on him at a party in season one, actor Marque Richardson felt he had enough to draw from his own life. “Well, I’m black. I’m a man, in America. Season one wasn’t that far of a stretch,” said Richardson.

However, the PTSD material in season two gave the actor more material to research and dig into. “I’m glad in season 2 we get to see Reggie dealing with PTSD and trying to heal himself,” said Richardson. “He’s still maneuvering through the crazy things college kids maneuver through. I’m glad the writers on the show tipped the tongue to give Reggie the space to go through all that.”

Reggie wasn’t the only character that received more challenges to play off of. As Coco, actress Antoinette Robertson was able to stretch herself and show her range this season. Her character prides herself on being in control and having a bright future ahead of herself. This promise hits a snag when Coco realizes, in episode four, that she’s pregnant and has to make a tough decision.

Antoinette Robertson

“I was really really grateful that they chose this character as a vessel to have these conversations as black women, as a whole, are underrepresented by the numbers when we talk about women who chose to have abortions,” said Robertson. “There are so many moments where women are vilified for making choices with their own bodies. I love we’re having this conversation where we are exploring both sides of an argument and not saying which side is better than the other. [We’re] merely saying she’s a girl, she ended up in a situation she didn’t know how to handle and whatever choice she made wasn’t an easy choice to make. That’s why I thought it was so beautifully done.”

Other characters, such as one-liner throwing best friend Joelle, played by Ashley Blaine Featherson, finally got the chance to shine in the spotlight. “My Mom [said], ‘I wish you had more one-liners like the first season,’” said Featherson. “I told her, ‘Mom, do you want me to have more real estate as a character and have my own episode or do you want me to have more one-liners.’ She said, ‘Can’t you have both?’”

Ashley Blaine Featherson

Joelle became entangled in a romantic love triangle this season. More-so than that, she finally got her own standalone episode. For her part, star Ashley Blaine Featherson couldn’t have been more thrilled, even though she knew season 2 would bring her an episode all to her own. I always knew that was the plan from season one. They built up the anticipation for that, which is really exciting,” said Featherson. “At the end of shooting my episode I cried and thanked the crew, the cast, Justin [Simien] and Leann [Bowen, the writer of the episode]. It was a really special moment I’ll never forget.”

It’s clear from the panel that the cast feels a great deal of camaraderie towards each other. “First season was like summer camp,” said Robertson. “We love each other. I feel like there are a lot of casts that say that but we actually do.”

Marque Richardson, DeRon Horton, Antoinette Robertson, John Patrick Amedori, Logan Browning, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Justin Simien, Ben Travers

With such a strong bond, many stars have already thought of dream storylines or scenarios for if the show is picked up for a third season. Richardson latches on specifically to a line from season two that hints at more drama for Reggie. “There was a line in episode two where Reggie tells Troy that he hasn’t told his Father, who is a Black Panther, what has happened,” said Richardson. “I would love to see that dynamic to see Reggie tell his Father what went down.”

Other stars, are looking to let loose and have a bit more fun. “I want to see Coco have more fun. … We see her so serious, we see her presentational,” said Robertson. “We see her being the woman she believes she needs to be to succeed in the world. But we don’t necessarily see her being fun.”

No matter the direction, the cast, and their creator will surely have a lot to laugh about, and a lot to say, if brought back for more on Netflix.

“Dear White People” seasons one and two are currently available for streaming on Netflix.