Dear White People is a satirical comedy about being ‘a Black face in a White place.’ This indie film centers on the lives of Black students attending a predominantly White Ivy League college. It grapples with issues of race and identity politics in a way rarely seen on the silver screen. Just on the heels of its 10/24 nationwide release, I sat down with writer, director and producer Justin Simien to get his take on the origins of the movie, its impact on the hollywood landscape, and more important things like whether Simien a Martin or Fresh Prince man. Take a look at the trailer below, find a screening in your area, and read on for the interview!
Dara: How did the concept for “Dear White People” came about?
Justin Simien: What began as late night conversations after Black Student Union meetings at my mostly White attended college became a screenplay about being a “Black face in a White place.” Ultimately, I wanted to tell a story about the relationship between our identities and who we really are – particularly through the lens of people of color who often must navigate American life by deciding constantly whether to conform or rebel against the presumptions held about them.
D: What was your personal aim in this movie? Catharsis? Educating the masses? Something else altogether?
JS: To articulate an experience missing from the cultural conversation, and in doing so to follow in the tradition of all great story-tellers by holding up a mirror to an audience from perhaps a rarely considered angle. To comment on the relationship between identity and self in a country where how a person is perceived is paramount to finding success.
D: You created the ‘Dear White People’ twitter account from the character, Samantha’s POV. How did you get in tune with that character? Did you have any reservations about taking responsibility for the portrayal of a Black woman? Does she have real life inspiration?
JS: Reservations about portraying a black woman? No. But certainly a feeling of tremendous responsibility to make sure that she was nuanced and complicated and rendered in a way that made her human. The twitter account was more a testing ground for her persona, the kind of humor she used, and also a preview of how audiences might respond both in the world of the story and the world at large.
D: Any film that tackles the issue of race is going to be seen as controversial. What’s the weirdest response you’ve gotten from someone who’s seen or heard of the movie?
JS: The strangest responses come from people who haven’t seen the film; who stop completely at the title and take to Twitter or the internet to protest it’s unfair portrayal of white people without spending a moment to investigate what the movie is actually about.
D: One of the most impressive things about the campaign around this film is the kind of momentum and anticipation you’ve been able to build through embracing technology: Indiegogo and then the post-Sundance campaign. What was your plan for keeping the buzz going? You’ve have leaned heavily on technology and social media to retain relevance. How different would this process have been if you hadn’t had those tools available?
JS: The film would likely have not gotten made without the support of our online communities. Our film’s financing was largely due to the fact that we were able to amass an large audience for a film that existed only in theory, thanks to the response from the YouTube concept trailer.
D: Dear White People isn’t just daring in subject matter. It’s also got an unconventional aesthetic. You’ve given us well-crafted tapestries and high-contrast shots, breakaways from the book Samantha wrote, “Ebony and Ivy”, like the ‘Tip Test’ among other unique choices. How does that look and feel play into the larger message of the film?
JS: My point of view as a filmmaker is informed by a love for the auteurs of cinema and their courage to embrace the whimsy of the medium to tell stories in unique and daring ways. In terms of how that point of view serves this story, I think the film is not what is expected generally from a “Black college movie” just as its Black main characters are not what you might expect of them at first glance.
D: Who is the character that you think most closely resembles your college experience at Chapman University?
JS: I entered school Lionel and left Sam, I’d say.
D: Do you find your Black experience now to be different than it was during those college years?
JS: My life experiences in general are incredibly different. The process of walking through different cultural spheres and feeling the weight of other people’s presumptions of me based on my race, and now my first film, will probably not change. I think I’ve also become even more aware since school of the more covert and insidious ways racism lies just beneath the surface in this country.
“It will take time, courage … and frankly marketing money to cultivate an audience that has turned its attention to the internet and television back into theaters.” – Justin Simien
D: This is such an important film, but you had to go outside the standard road to the silver screen to get it done. With its impending national success, do you foresee more doors in the film industry opening for high-quality films like yours?
JS: It depends. I think telling stories about people of color with sincerity and daring but without tragedy will continue to be a difficult thing to do. It will take time, courage, multiple storytellers, and frankly marketing money to cultivate an audience that has turned its attention to the internet and television back into theaters. This industry struggles to take the time and effort to do anything without a glaringly obvious financial incentive.
D: What advice do you have for an artist who is struggling to get their work produced?
JS: To decide that “no” is not an acceptable answer. And while it is true, particularly in film, that success will require resources from and collaboration with others, you have to take full responsibility for getting the work completed.
D: The racial climate in this country has shifted dramatically, even since your film premiered to such rave reviews at Sundance this January. Awareness and hostility seem to be at an all time high. How do you think the spotlight that’s been thrown on injustice, police brutality, etc. will affect audience response to the film?
JS: Hopefully it will encourage people to be prepared for the conversations the film will likely provoke.
D: What’s next for you?
JS: Dear White People the TV show, and a new satirical film I’ve just begun working on.
D: It’s time for the lightning round! What’s your favorite song right now?
JS: *Not For Long (B.O.B.)
D: Favorite TV show?
JS: At the moment? Adventure Time. All time? Mad Men
D: Favorite family recipe?
JS: Seafood Gumbo
D: Biggest film influence?
JS: Stanley Kubrick
D: What keeps you up at night?
JS: How can I do it better?
D: Martin or Fresh Prince?
JS: Fresh Prince
D: Dinner or Dessert?
D: Who is your dream collaborator?
*Dara’s note: This song
Kirko bangs. Listen to it on your way to the movies!
I want to thank Justin for taking the time to share his thoughts with me. Dear White People opened in theaters nationwide on October, 24th. Go see it twice!