Three years ago, writer-director Justin Simien’s Dear White People premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to near-universal acclaim from critics, who lauded the film’s mix of satire and social commentary as it focused on black culture and identity at a fictional Ivy League college. But Simien wasn’t done yet, and he’s spent the past past few years retooling Dear White People as a television series, which recently made its debut on Netflix.
The series – which features several returning cast members from the original film – has enjoyed even more positive buzz than its big-screen counterpart, and currently holds a 100% “fresh” rating from review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Shortly after watching the heart-stopping fifth episode – directed by Moonlight helmer Barry Jenkins – we caught up once again with series star Marque Richardson, who reprises his role as Reggie Green for one of the most pivotal television moments in recent memory.
Last time we spoke, you talked about how you like working in television – and now you’re bringing a character that you’ve previously played in film to a television series. How did this come about?
Marque Richardson: We all knew that Justin wanted to develop this as a TV show, even when we were shooting the film. So we all kept in communication with Justin, and he always kept tabs on us and told us stuff like “don’t go book another job, I’ve got this show coming.” And for me, it was like “I hear you, but Daddy’s gotta eat,” you know? [laughs]
But I’m honored that he actually did call me back and that I was actually able to come back, schedule-wise. And the fact that we’ve been able to do it like this, with Netflix, has just been an awesome experience.
I’m sure it has to be great to get the group back together, especially with your former roommate, and get a chance to embody these characters again.
Marque Richardson: Oh yeah, especially with Brandon [T. Bell], we’ve been friends since like 2003. So to be able to come back together with all these people and continue this journey has been an incredible experience for sure.
You’ve got quite a few members of the original cast, but some of those roles have also changed. Was it difficult to get used to new performers playing these characters?
Marque Richardson: Of course you miss your friends, but you get it – everybody has scheduling conflicts and whatnot. But the people that came on and stepped into these shoes did a phenomenal job, and we just dove right in. And I tip my hat to them, because I feel like that was a bigger responsibility, or maybe a bigger challenge, to step into the shoes of other actors that have already done such a terrific job.
We’ve gotta talk about that fifth episode, because the last few minutes hits you like a truck. Up until that point, the show had been dealing with issues in a very humorous way, but there’s nothing humorous about those last few minutes.
Marque Richardson: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Even watching it as a civilian – I try to separate myself from the work that we did – but just watching that episode, I couldn’t breathe. Just relating to Reggie as a young black man first, just as Marque and what my experience has been in the world, watching that moment I felt suffocated.
And then, the actual work of it, when I read that script I cried multiple times, just thinking about those last two scenes, and that being the reality. For me, what broke me down is that it was dehumanizing, it was humiliating and I was enraged as Reggie – but as Marque, I kept thinking about my nephew, who at the time was a year and a half, and the fact that this may very well be the reality that he has to grow up in. It’s just a very dark place to go, but I feel like we took it to a place it needed to go.
It’s very interesting how the series kind of lulls audiences into a false sense of security with all of the humor, and then pulls the rug out. It almost left me a little scared to watch the remaining episodes.
Marque Richardson: Right?! [laughs] I kept thinking the same thing! Episode Five is very much just a “day in the life,” just being young and black and carefree. But at the end of that particular episode, Reggie realizes he’s not free in any form, and that’s a very sobering thought.
Going forward, specially if there’s another season in the works, do you feel like Dear White People has a certain responsibility to address these kind of issues head-on?
Marque Richardson: Yeah, I definitely would imagine that would be the case. Season One is honestly just the tip of the iceberg for all these characters, and thank God it’s a satire and we get to make people laugh so we can melt down that guard before we feed the audience the real shit. There’s just so much more to talk about, and I wouldn’t imagine Justin and the writers would change the formula at all.
Once you open that door, it’s hard to close it again.
Marque Richardson: Oh yeah. And I’m so glad we got to do this show with Netflix as opposed to any other network, because they provide the freedom to tell the truth that a lot of these other networks wouldn’t provide that space for. I don’t think we could’ve done the show any other place, it just wouldn’t have been this authentic.
I know we’re about out of time, but are there any other projects in the works you can talk about?
Marque Richardson: Yeah, I shot a film last summer in Atlanta called Stepsisters, which should be out later this year. That was a real fun project, another conversational piece – I seem to keep getting lined up with these projects. But it’s a light, fun movie where I play a goofball – it’s like Pitch Perfect meets Drumline. I saw a cut a couple of weeks ago, and it’s really fun. But other than that, I wanna get to space! [laughs] I wanna get to space in a movie! So we’ll see what happens.
The first season of Dear White People is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.