The third season of “Dear White People” picks up right where Season 2 left off: in cavernous-looking darkness, hearing the voice — but now, also, seeing the face — of the show’s long-time narrator (Giancarlo Esposito), who’s thrilled to find out the code surrounding the order has finally been cracked. But it’s a bit of a misdirection, as Sam (Logan Browning) and Lionel (DeRon Horton) have no idea what he’s talking about, and after their immediate disappointment that they came “all this way for more riddles and hoops,” as Lionel puts it, the show jumps ahead three months.
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The series proves it still has no shortage of topical things about which to talk, including a take on #MeToo centered on guest star Blair Underwood. Underwood plays Moses Brown, a beloved former professor who comes back to campus to teach and develop a new app with students on the campus, including Reggie (Marque Richardson). But soon enough, allegations against him begin to spread, tainting mainly characters’ views of a man who seemed like a beacon for the community.
“We had to blind you — the audience — from seeing really who he is, almost right away,” says creator and executive producer Justin Simien. “Because that’s the hardest part. [You say to yourself] ‘Well, I never knew that so and so was a sexual predator’ or ‘I can’t even imagine such and such doing such and such things.’ Well, no, of course, you can’t imagine it. That’s how it works. You have to be kind of ‘glamored’ by them in order for them to operate in that way.”
Simien says having such a charismatic actor in Underwood certainly aids in that part of the story. “Blair is just an amazing actor,” he says. “He could do anything. But the thing about that character is that you tend to immediately get, why everyone loved him.”
For the audience, they may be taken with Underwood’s undeniable good looks and charm, while Reggie is taken with the charm, too, and seeing Moses as a mentor. Reggie feels a connection to Moses and feels like they understand each other because they both had negative encounters with police, share a deep love of technology, and are both men of Winchester.
But after Muffy (Caitlin Carver) tells CoCo (Antoinette Robertson) that something happened between them at Moses’ house, allegations arise, as does a clear divide arises amongst the students, some of whom believe Muffy and some of whom don’t.
Simien says the writers were working on the season in the midst of stories surrounding Bill Cosby resurfacing in the media after his arrest and the launch of both “Surviving R. Kelly” and “Leaving Neverland,” documentary projects that explored the allegations against singers R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, respectively. But furthermore, Simien shares there were other personal things happening that made him want to really explore this idea.
“There were heroes in my personal life who I thought were allies who ended up being antagonists, and there were people who I thought were antagonists who ended up being allies and being mentors to me,” he says.
Specifically for Simien, these situations were not about sexual abuse or assault but rather relationships with other Black directors, with Tyler Perry being someone who Simien ended up connecting with in an unexpected way.
“Tyler Perry, who I never really thought of as an antagonist, he called me one day and said, ‘Yo man, I’m about to be in LA. I want to make sure we don’t have beef’ because my [‘Dear White People’] movie, it was a little shady; there’s a couple of shady lines,” Simien admits. “And, in fact, he was a really nice guy.”
That interaction led to Simien asking if Perry would come onto “Dear White People” to play a version of himself to respond to the criticisms Simien had of him. “It really was borne out of that conversation and me saying, ‘Hey, I really want to give space with my audience for you to make a really intellectual argument for what you do. To have a person that represents what you do,” he says.
But when Perry wasn’t available to do it, Simien says the only person he thought he’d be comfortable with playing that role and rendering such a sensitive critique of the media mogul’s perception versus reality was himself. Thus, Simien’s elongated cameo in the third season of “Dear White People” was born.
“I came here to throw darts, I always have. All of my work does that,” he says. “The reason is because the status quo keeps us from growing. It’s like cement. It keeps you stuck in there. And [the new Black Hollywood has] in a lot of ways become the status quo. When you look at what is considered premiere Black television entertainment, a lot of that is coming off of what we were able to establish in the [‘Dear White People’] movie and in that first season.”
But, Simien has the self-awareness to consider his role in that: “I thought it was so interesting, and part of it is my fault — this sort of looking down our nose at certain kinds of black entertainment that actually comes out of American black traditions.”
Simien also had another Black director that influenced him who — at least in part – made it into the season: Spike Lee. Simien was a longtime fan of Lee, but Lee has not had kind words for Simien. In this third season of “Dear White People,” Sam has a similar experience with one of her filmmaking idols, Cynthia Fray (played by Laverne Cox). Simien says that brief interaction wasn’t all about Lee, but it certainly was on his mind while working on the character and the way she responds to Sam.
“[It’s] the experience of finally meeting the person who opened the door for you to walk in, and they’re actually there heckling you and telling them the bouncer to not let you in: ‘Don’t let that dusty person in.’ It’s very disorienting, and I don’t know a lot of people of color, frankly, who hasn’t had at least some experience like that,” he says.
Another experience most people of color have had that found its way onto the pages of the script plays out with guest star Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays CoCo’s mother, Evelyn Conners.
Evelyn is the polar opposite of CoCo — or Colandrea, her full name, as her mother calls her. She’s loud and gregarious, while Coco rarely raises her voice. Evelyn is less educated, doesn’t code-switch, and pronounces things differently, whereas CoCo attends school at an Ivy and has all but mastered how to speak the language of her classmates.
Simien says he wanted to include such a character as Evelyn because he knew every person of color would be able to relate. But, more importantly, he says that it showed us something about CoCo that she’s worked so hard to suppress.
“As ambitious as she is and fearless as she is and as shameless, frankly, as she is and presents — it was always clear that she was running away from something,” Simien says of CoCo. “We really wanted to get into the imposter syndrome because it’s so sneaky — how it gets in and you can feel so confident and not realize it’s underneath your confidence. It’s actually a little bit of arrogance.”
However, he notes, underneath that arrogance is “actually shame, and underneath that shame is the belief that you’re an imposter, that you don’t deserve to be here.” And this was of interest of him to explore because “we’re groomed in every respect as Black people from the minute we’re born to act a certain way, to talk a certain way, be a certain way in the world — so that people accept us. And sometimes you find yourself suddenly 30 years old, 40 years old, however old you are, and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, how much of this is even me? And how much of this is an actual erasure of who I am that I’ve accepted? That I’ve just swallowed hook, line, and sinker?’”