The fifth episode of Justin Simien’s Netflix series, Dear White People, is its most unsettling: a look at the world of Winchester University through the wary eyes of Reggie (Marque Richardson), a student activist. The story climaxes with a racially charged confrontation at a party between Reggie and an insensitive white student that prompts a visit from a campus security officer, who pulls a gun on Reggie and demands to see his ID.
The episode was written last year by Chuck Heyward and Jack Moore and directed by Barry Jenkins, whose film Moonlight, a future multiple Oscar winner, had not yet been commercially released. I spoke to Jenkins about his direction of the episode. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
How did you end up directing this episode?
Justin had seen an early cut of Moonlight, and he said, “Hey, I would love for you to direct an episode.” And I said, “Well, I would love to, but I need you to know that I’m going to be busy every day promoting Moonlight,” and he was like, “Nahnahnahnahnah, don’t worry. It’ll just be people walking and talking at a college!” And I said, “Okay, fine.”
And then I got the script, and … [Laughs] Let’s say they went in a muchdifferent direction than walking and talking!
Did you have anything to do with setting the look of the show, or was that all in place when you set foot on the set?
No, that’s all Justin. I saw the movie this show was based on, and I knew Justin had a great eye. They sent all the other directors who worked on the show this sort of visual, uh, principles book — whatever you want to call it — that gave us an idea of how to approach directing episodes of Dear White People. Justin and [series cinematographer] Jeffrey Waldron did a great job of building a visual aesthetic that we could all walk into. But within that aesthetic, we had freedom. They made it clear that they had hired specific directors because they liked their visual voices and wanted us to put our own spin on things.
Dear White People is a very cinematic show. A lot of attention has been paid to how the camera moves, where people are in the frame, how the music is used. I wonder how much of this is indicated on the page, though? When you get a script, are there shots indicated on the page, or is it all general description and dialogue?
No, we had total visual freedom. I mean, Jeff shoots every episode, so there are some guiding principles, and Justin was always around so that we could cross-reference our choices and ask, “Does this work for the world of Dear White People?” But the really cool thing about the show is that it shifts perspective, and that means it’s kind of okay for a Reggie episode to look different from, say, a Sam episode or a Coco episode. You feel that there’s a defensible reason for that, because of the show’s Rashomon-like narrative structure.
Justin told me, “You are here to be you.” Remember, when Justin brought me in, he had more information about me at that point than I did about the show, because by that point Justin had seen Moonlight already. He chose me to direct this episode based on Moonlight.
Let’s talk about the direction. This is a show that isn’t afraid to do close-ups where people seem to be looking right into the camera, or almost into the camera. That’s a kind of shot that Spike Lee uses a lot, and it was probably perfected by the late Jonathan Demme. Every episode ends with a variation of that kind of shot. But in this Reggie episode, it seems you’ve got more of those shots sprinkled throughout, even in scenes where you might not necessarily expect to see them.
That is a Dear White People thing, that shot, especially at the ends of episodes where they’re looking directly into the camera. You know, I likethat shot! I did that kind of thing in Moonlight, so I was like, “Yeah, I know what this is.” Justin had created the perfect sandbox for me to play in.
But here, that shot was about centering Reggie. Reggie is an interesting guy. He’s very focused and he cares very passionately about a lot of things, and in previous episodes of the show, those things were not allowed to be centered, because he was not the main character. He was on the periphery.
So when you shoot a scene that way, it’s about literally centering Reggie: his interests, his focus.
Especially in one scene that occurs very early in the episode. And in the scene, you have Reggie on one side of the conversation, by himself, right in the center of his own frame. Facing him, you have this wall of other characters, and they’re pictured either in a three-shot or a two-shot. A lot of the time Reggie is looking very directly at them.