Director Justin Simien talks about Dear White People

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Director Justin Simien first started thinking about his debut feature film Dear White People in 2006. He imagined a handful of archetypal black students at a prestigious and overwhelmingly white university. As he worked on the script, he eventually created the Twitter handle @dearwhitepeople to work on missives about racial caricatures of black people. He now uses the twitter handle to promote the film, but his stream of observations became the basis for character Sam White's (Tessa Thompson) Winchester University radio program announcements about the same type of campus attitudes.

But another plot point turned out to have a real-world existence and helped him move ahead with the film. In the story, the campus' feisty humor magazine decides to throw a party with a blackface theme. Simien wasn't sure how believable that was, until he realized such parties were actually common.

"It was the Compton Cookout that made me realize this wasn’t just overreach of a satirical screenplay," Simien said in an interview with Gambit. "It was something that actually happened. Spike (Lee) had already done the blackface thing in Bamboozle. I had a version of that in this college campus. As much as everyone in my film had their hands on that party, I thought it was too damning. It would be so outrageous that people would think I wasn’t being fair to the reality of the situation. And then low and behold, almost exactly the way it happened in the screenplay, it played out at the University of California at San Diego at this thing called the Compton Cookout. Then I started searching the Internet. People were writing essays about them. It was just kind of being made public on social media. All these invites are on Facebook, the photos are on facebook. They’ve always been happening and now we know about it."

Dear White People screens Saturday at the New Orleans Film Festival (10 p.m. at the Prytania Theatre) and is scheduled to be open at The Theaters at Canal Place Oct. 24. (Reviewed here.)


Dear White People features four protagonist black students at Winchester. White is labeled a Black Panther wannabe for her confrontational style. Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the dean’s son, is seen as being extremely deferential to whites and the establishment in order to succeed. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is suspect for not being comfortable in all-black company. Coco (Teyonah Parris of Mad Men) tries to use every situation to her advantage.

Simien describes them not as stereotypes but archetypes of people of color, not necessarily black, who adopt survival tactics in environments where they are in the minority or have to cope with the way they are labelled.

"I like the word archetypes," Simien says. "We haven’t actually seen these characters often enough. One is middle of the road and gay – I haven’t seen that character in anything. I think there are necessary tactics people of color or anyone in any marginalized community uses to get along in a society where your identity is everything and (it's) thrust upon you by the mainstream culture. From Sam taking an ostensibly pro-black stance in everything she does to Lionel claiming no identity, and everything in between — these are the tactics you use when you walk into a world that says because you’re this you must be that."

Simien satirizes the notion that the United States, because of the election of President Barack Obama, has become "post-racial."

"The funny thing is that there are still people out there who believe [the U.S. is post-racial]," Simien says. "People say 'Do we even need this [type of film]? Aren’t we beyond this?' After Obama was elected, there was this post-racial bubble; some liberal and very well-intentioned people thought we had overcome the struggles of racism. It took all these tragic shootings of black teenagers, and members of congress telling Obama to go back to Africa, and racist blackface parties to bubble into the mainstream for people to realize we’re still dealing with the same issues."

Simien believes the election of Obama is progress, and he has an idea of what needs to happen next.

"We need to get to a place where there are more people in the middle," he says. "We have the idealized version of black life that encompasses Obama and Beyonce and Jay-Z and Oprah. And we have the very tragic black experiences, and those are the two paradigms that exist. [We need] the people in the middle. Oprah is a superhero. Obama is a superhero. The everyday complexity and humanity of the black experience needs to be embraced. When a person like Shonda Rhimes can have an opinion and not be labeled an 'angry black woman' — when that can happen that’s when we’ll be a step closer to seeing people a little different from us as (being) just as human."

In some ways, Simien has followed in the footsteps of a small "smarthouse" cinema movement of films by black directors with mostly black casts, such as Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle. He says that not many directors have made satirical films of that nature, and that absence makes it harder to get such a project approved by a major Hollywood studio.

"In the studio system, even if executives love a project, and we had some executives really love our project — but from a business affairs standpoint, nothing in Hollywood gets green-lit unless you can justify it’ll make a profit based on something that came out already," Simien says. "In the independent world, if your main cast is black, you can’t approach most independent investors, because they base their models on foreign sales. Foreign sales depends on this myth that black films don’t travel, and black stars and actors arent’t interesting to foreign markets." 

Simien declined to say how much he spent to make the film, but described it as neither a micro-budget nor "millions of dollars." The movie was filmed in 17 days on the campus of the University of Minnesota. He also had envisioned a more art house "Nasvhille-style" (Robert Altman) version with more characters, but stuck to a more compact, four-protagonist story. It won a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival. He hopes the film succeeds in opening up studios to funding more films with more black characters and focusing on black experiences. 

Currently, Simien is focused on the rollout of the film, but he's also investigating if its characters have a future on TV, which he sees as opening up due to the arrival of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, and a market with increasing high-quality programming. In October, he releases a book based on his film, which is titled Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-racial Harmony in "Post-Racial" America.




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