“We’re all storytellers,” Yvette Lee Bowser said to me during our chat after I asked her how she battles creative blockages. She went on: “Writer’s block only exists when trying to figure out specifically how you’re going to tell the story. I never feel a dearth of stories to tell or characters of whom to tell those stories.”
I was beyond excited to speak with the successful showrunner because I’ve been unknowingly following and gushing over her career for the last 20-plus years. Bowser is the TV writer and producer responsible for creating the classic Living Single. The very popular ’90s TV show was created by Bowser and her production company, Sister Lee. And she did that at the age of 27! That’s the age when many of us are freaking out because we’re closer to 30 than we are 20 and we’re wondering what the heck we’re doing with our lives. Not Bowser.
She was clear on her career vision even though, when she was younger, she had no idea that she’d have a career like the one she’s built.
“I didn’t have enough in my life growing up to know this was my dream,” Bowser said when I asked her if she’d fulfilled her own dreams for herself. All she knew was that she had a talent for writing our stories, and so she did. She never specifically set out to do “important work” with a capital “I”; her vision was to create quality programming that truly revealed the black experience.
Her career has spanned more than 30 years and shows no signs of slowing. Bowser is now the showrunner for Netflix’s Dear White People. This is a show spawned from Justin Simien’s movie of the same name. From the title to the trailer, the show is clearly controversial and caused a few white tears to be shed.
“Some of the most powerful, moving and life-changing moments [I’ve ever had] have been on Dear White People. I was woke before the show, but I am more woke now,” Bowser said, laughing.
The show might be one of the single-most-woke shows of Netflix’s scripted series. It tackles racism in a predominantly white college not only from the black students’ perspectives but from the white students’ as well. The series digs deep into privilege (both black and white), interracial relationships, freedom of speech, black masculinity and more.
It’s clear that Bowser brought decades of creating quality black TV with her to this show and expects the audience to have strong reactions, just as she did while filming. There were several moments that made her feel uncomfortable, but she says she later realized that she loved those moments and she had to do the show in that way. “That’s part of the creative process,” Bowser admitted.
During our chat, Bowser shared how she became a part of this controversial series, why the white tears as a result of the show are hilarious and how she’s been reaching back to help others get on her level for more than 13 years. Get into it!
The Root: What made you take on the Dear White People project?
Yvette Lee Bowser: I had this fortuitous breakfast with Justin Simien where we instantly connected. He was delightful and I thought, “This is someone I’d like to help.”
He’s a visionary. And he has a tremendous point of view and a clarity around that point of view. I was also looking for a new challenge. After being in the business for (at that time) 29 years, now 30 years, I was looking for ways to challenge myself and do something meaningful. It was very much in line with my agenda from day one.
Coming up from A Different World, I’m no stranger to the art of activism, so this is my lane. To be a part of telling new stories about us that just haven’t been told. We’re living these lives; they’re just not always depicted. In my career, I’ve made that my point.
TR: When there’s art, there’s reactions. Even the trailer for Dear White People made people show their …
YLB: The fact that we have to remind people that racism exists is a damn shame. We make it funny, and that’s really the beauty of the show. Not only is it wonderfully accurate and dramatic, it’s hilarious.
The trailer definitely ignited lots of conversation and some turmoil, and it’s been to the benefit of the show. The trolls raised awareness, so we thank them. We’ve built up a callus to it. We know what we’re doing, where we’re coming from and what our intentions are. We also know what the series is. As long as we’re true to ourselves and the vision we set out to execute, I think we’re in a good place. We’re going to help advance the conversation.
TR: Do you feel a responsibility to depict blackness accurately and fairly?
YLB: Absolutely. I think a lot of it has to do with coming up on A Different World, and that being kind of the mantra of finding the best of us, not shying away from depicting the worst of us at times, but finding humor in it. That’s where I start. This is my lane; it comes very naturally to me.
We did that on Living Single, depicting black women in ways we haven’t seen them before; we did a lot of it on Black-ish. Not everyone, because it was a network show, was excited about it dealing with race issues, but that became the backbone of the series. Going at it head-on. I’m excited we’re able to take it up a notch. [Dear White People] is a little more cinema verité. It looks beautiful!
TR: It is beautiful! Like the movie. I’m curious, why take this movie to a series?
YLB: I think Justin always had in the back of his mind that he wanted to tell more stories through these characters, and not so secretly, he wanted to do a TV show. And given what it’s about, a television show is a natural progression of that.
Quite frankly, college has always been a microcosm of the larger universe. It’s kind of the perfect setup for a TV series. College has always been a great background to talk about the bigger issues in American in particular.
TR: There are so many deeply emotional moments in Dear White People. How did you self-care while creating this?
YLB: There’s a moment in the pilot where I am moved every single time. I get chills every time I see it. I wept. Episode 5—the party scene, we had to shut down production to have a moment and feel it completely. I made the decision to shut it down for a bit. Everyone needed to soak it in so they could continue the work.
TR: Being from the ’90s school of television, do you think we’ll get back that same quality programming?
YLB: I actually believe that this is evolution of that same quality starting place. I believe that if you appreciated any of those shows, you’ll really connect with this. On a gut level, I feel the full circleness of this experience for me. Part of my job wasn’t to impede Justin’s vision but to enhance it. The combination of the two of us hopefully strikes the right tone with the audience.
TR: How do you help make sure there’s more representation in your field—more black showrunners?
YLB: I co-run a program at the Writer’s Guild called [the Showrunner] Training Program, and I’ve been dong it 13 years. Mentoring is rewarding. It’s rewarding to help others, and I want people of color to feel half of what I’ve felt in my career. I consulted on Black-ish because Kenya Barris was in the training program and he asked me for help on his pilot.
Editor’s note: Dear White People premieres on Netflix on April 28.