Unless you’ve been living under a rock or haven’t borrowed your homie’s Netflix username and password, you should be like the rest of us—pretty damn shook over Dear White People.
Adapted from Justin Simien’s 2014 movie of the same name, the new 10-episode series explores myriad issues that black students encounter—racism, class, colorism, interracial dating and the pressure to #StayWoke—while attending the fictional Ivy League-esque Winchester University. And while the strength of the critically acclaimed comedy is its ensemble of #BlackExcellence actors, it’s Marque Richardson (Reggie) who walks away as the show’s MVP.
(Spoiler alert: Details from episode 5 start here.)
Two words: “Chapter V.”
Directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), the triggering episode shifts its tone, taking a break from biting one-liners and everyday microaggressions to focus on the life-threatening danger that too many black people face when dealing with the police.
What starts off with Reggie and his friends frolicking around campus, hopping from one place to the other, quickly escalates when Reggie gets into a heated argument at a party with a white student who uses the n-word. When the campus police arrive to break up the fight, they instantly gravitate to Reggie, who finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun after he initially refuses to show them his student ID.
Richardson, who also played Reggie in the film, says that his mind was racing while this episode was being shot.
“I just kept thinking about my 1-1/2-year-old nephew who has to grow up in a world where this is our reality, and the others who’ve lost their lives to this type of violence,” Richardson shared in an exclusive interview with The Root. “I’ve never had the police pull a gun on me before ... but in those moments on set, I focused on that fear and humiliation. And yes, shooting those scenes [was] very dehumanizing.”
Richardson stressed that his authentic performance was also a product of how Jenkins and Simien uplifted and nurtured him off-camera: “[It] was truly a result of trusting Barry and Justin all the way. Since the three of us are black men, we didn’t need to spend a lot of time talking about what the scenes meant—there was this unspoken understanding that just made for good television.”
While the standoff between the police and Reggie defines episode 5, it’s the riveting final scene—when the typically stoic Reggie finally succumbs to his emotions—that will forever cement this episode into television history. Not only is it a raw and stunning spectacle of acting, but it’s also one of those rare moments when we are actually allowed to witness a black man’s vulnerability. A moment that Richardson told The Root wasn’t originally in the script.
“I cried a lot when reading this script, but that final scene was pretty straightforward [and didn’t call for a breakdown]. But when the cameras started rolling, those tears just happened. It’s what I felt in that moment for Reggie and myself,” Richardson said.
The actor also credits producer and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser for inspiring that heartbreaking on-screen reaction.
“Yvette told me that one time she was on the phone with her husband and son, and they happened to get pulled over by a police officer. She was terrified that she was going to hear her family being killed over the phone. Hearing that fear in her voice made me want to cry,” he explained.
“Then it was time for me to go on, and I was like, ‘Yvette, you gonna just leave me like this right now?’” he said, laughing.
Jokes aside, the 31-year-old former child actor admits that he’s been waiting for this type of heavy material for nearly 20 years.
“Being on Dear White People and having these particular scenes were an accumulation of decades of hard work. As an artist, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to dive into something this meaty damn near my whole life,” he said.
Hopefully he believes it was worth the wait.
Since the show’s April 28 debut, not only have Richardson’s Twitter mentions been flooded with hundreds praising his work, but the media has taken notice, too. Mic recently called this episode “the best TV of 2017,” and the series has a rare 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Yet a humble Richardson says that all of this admiration has taken him for a loop.
“When you’re on set, you do your job, go home and do it all over again the next day. You don’t really obsess about how it’s going to be received later on. Now, yes, we knew we had something special, but I’m still shocked and overwhelmed by the response. It’s really great!” he exclaimed.
He added: “I’m also grateful to the cast and the crew and to Justin for calling me back in to play this role. I would follow him to hell and back—that’s how much I believe in his genius.”
Given that the show debuted the same weekend that unarmed teen Jordan Edwards was shot and killed in Balch Springs, Texas, by now-former Police Officer Roy Oliver, Richardson doubles down on the notion that this show is a microcosm of what’s happening in America—and he’s honored to be part of it.
“As a black man and an actor, I feel good about being on this show because not only is it timely, it’s sparking important conversations. It’s also a vehicle to do something good in this world. And I know it sounds cliché, but good will always prevail,” he said.
Season 1 of Dear White People is available on Netflix now.