The Politics of Self

Dear White People director Justin Simien looks to the questions of identity that lie beyond the race debate

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Justin Simien’s film Dear White People was all the rage during the Sundance Film Festival, and it has continued to gain momentum on the way to its theatrical release. The title alone is provocative and the Indiegogo trailer that was launched a little over two years ago raised some curious eyebrows and opened some wallets. (It aimed to raise $25,000, but raked in $40,000 instead.)

Now, after limited release in New York and Los Angeles, the movie opens in theaters nationwide October 24, and, despite what the title suggests, Simien wants the film to go beyond the ordinary conversation about race.

“There are some people who are still clinging to the idea that this movie is meant to tell you something—like it’s meant to tell you specifically how Americans should be and how you should behave,” says the writer and director. “I have no control over that piece of it, but the experience of the movie itself … I tried to make decisions—creative decisions, narrative decisions, performance choices—based on what I think the movie’s actually about, which is identity and self rather than race politics.”

The film is set in a heightened reality and puts the lives of four black students at an Ivy League college under a microscope, with the unapologetic and straight-foward Sam (Tessa Thompson) at the center of it all. As the host of the campus radio show called “Dear White People,” she expresses her opinions about people of the Caucasian race quite candidly. When one of the white fraternities decide to host a controversially themed Halloween party, things start to escalate quickly.

Influenced by the likes of Fellini, Stanley Kurbrick, P.T. Anderson, and Bob Fosse, Simien picks up where films by Spike Lee and John Singleton of the ’80s and ’90s left off—but with a different perspective. We had the opportunity to talk to Simien about his thought-provoking, satirical film.

Paste: Where did the idea for this movie come?
Simien:The germ of the idea came from my college experience. I was one of very few black people at a mostly white place—and I just thought it was really funny. It was interesting to step between different worlds. There’s a group of white kids who have expectations of us because we’re black, and within the very small group of black kids at the school, we have expectations of each other. It was a very interesting, often funny and sort of awkward way of walking through the world. I thought it was interesting. It was 2005, there was nothing in the popular culture discussing that version of the black experience and that’s the only version of the black experience that I ever knew.

Paste: What was going on in 2005, do you remember?
Simien: Tyler Perry was everywhere. It was after Diary of a Mad Black Woman. We were in pretty deep. Big Mama’s House was out. It was about what is the most commercial spend of money that the industry could make and satisfy a particular audience. I had a great love for multi-protagonist movies. I had a great love for movies that took place in school institutions that were microcosms for the greater American experience—and a big love for the “black smart-house”—which at that time didn’t exist. [It was] what Robert Townsend, Spike [Lee], and Gina Prince-Bythewood were doing in the late ’80s and early ’90s. That wasn’t really a thing anymore in theaters. It was the combination of all of those things that made me say this is a movie I want to make.

Paste: How long did it take you to write Dear White People?
Simien: I wrote it over several years, along with some other scripts, and it just got to a point where this was clearly the one and I ran with it.

Paste: The movie includes a pivotal moment where a white fraternity has a black theme party complete with black face, which isn’t too far from reality. Did all of the real-life black face parties happening while you were filming this?
Simien: One happened at Dartmouth the week we started shooting.

Paste:That’s quite a coincidence.
Simien: Yeah. And one happened at Arizona University the day after we promoted at Sundance. It was happening throughout. I wrote a blackface party in the script around 2009 or 2010. I thought it’d be an interesting climax for the movie—and I took it out because I thought it was too absurd. Then it happened at UC San Diego in 2011. It was called something like “Compton Cookout.” It was the first time that one of these things had made national news. I noticed not only do they happen theoretically, they happen quite often across the country in places like Yale as well as places like Ole Miss. It happened everywhere. I rabbit holed down this path of research. They’d been happening for a while, it was just the first time that they’re happening in the age of social media and people were able to find out about them. All throughout school there’s always “The Bling Party” and “The Pimps and Hos Party”—it’s coded for whatever the race group. It’s a phenomenon that I tapped into and for whatever reason, has made public news at every major juncture of the film.

Paste: There are a lot of movies that blatantly explore this topic and the audience claims that they leave with a very general lesson that teaches them that racism is bad. Do you think it helps to have films like that?
Simien: There’s not a problem with films like that. Someone asked me, “Why a comedy over a drama?” It just depends on what your intention is. I don’t need to be told that racism is bad. I got it. I know that it’s bad. I think that most people know it’s bad, so for me to make a movie where, at the core of it, my theme is that racism is bad—I don’t have any interest in saying that. I’m just repeating something that I feel we all know, and if we don’t know, I don’t think we could even have a conversation at all, let alone me make a movie that you’d want to see. I just wasn’t interested in saying that. I was much more interested in talking about identity and self because that, to me, is something we don’t talk about in the context of race a lot. It’s a lot more nuanced than, “Racism is wrong.” There’s just a lot more too it, and it’s something where for every point there really is a counterpoint that, honestly, from the white point of view could be just as valid. It’s complicated. I’m just more drawn to those kinds of stories. When I see films, particularly films about race, that are obviously dogmatic, it doesn’t leave me with anything to talk about in the lobby. It just tells me what I already knew.

Paste: Going back to multi-protagonists, you have characters representing different perspectives of the black experience at this college. You have Sam who is very outspoken and culturally passionate. Troy is the all-star Golden Boy. There’s Coco, who wears contacts and blonde wigs and, in a sense, is trying to be a white girl. Then you have Lionel who is an outsider within a group of outsiders. How did you let your own experiences inform the story and these characters?
Simien: For me, I was always taught to start with how you want the audience to feel. I love movies where I feel like I enjoyed the movie. I went on the ride with the movie, but it left me with a question. It left me with a burning desire to answer that question. Like, at the end of Do the Right Thing, you’re so conflicted because you don’t know who did the right thing. Am I supposed to celebrate that Mookie threw the trash can through the window and asked for his money back? Who are these characters? How am I supposed to feel? I love movies that do that because the point is to hold the mirror up, and when we look at our reflection it’s uncomfortable. We have to go and digest that. That’s what I think art is about. That’s what’s so powerful about my favorite films; they always leave me with a question.

I knew that that’s where I wanted to end. I knew that I would get there just by telling the truth, which is that people are complicated.

Paste: Especially when it comes to race relations.
Simien: When you’re a minority and you feel a pressure to hang your hat on your minority identity—whatever that means to you—it’s a conflicting experience. I knew if I just told the truth about that experience, people would walk away identifying with different characters and needing to deal with something in themselves. I remember my producer, Lena Waithe, who has read every draft of the script, was there while we were shooting. After she watched the very first rough cut, she was like, “I’m fucked up right now.” (laughs) She said, “All this time I thought I was Sam, but I’m Troy, and it’s really messing with me.” I was like that’s awesome, I’ll take that.

Paste: Before you know it, BuzzFeed will have a “Which Dear White People character are you?” quiz.
Simien: I welcome a BuzzFeed quiz! (laughs)

Paste: As far as casting is concerned, you had a phenomenal cast. First off, as a fan of Veronica Mars, I appreciate having Tessa Thompson and Kyle Gallner as Sam and Kurt. That is a wonderful reunion.
Simien: Seriously!

Paste: In addition to them, you have have Tyler James Williams and Brandon Bell.
Simien: We had great casting directors—Kim Coleman in L.A. and Lynn Blumenthal in Minneapolis. It was a process of discovery. We knew that because of the age of the characters, there were very few known actors that would make sense. Of course, Tessa and Tyler were on my radar. Brandon was with us from the start. Brandon was a friend of mine. He’d done some TV before but never a film—nothing on this scale. He played Troy in a workshop for the movie. Then he played Troy in the content trailer for the movie. For the feature, I asked him to come read for Troy. He was going to be up against a lot of people, and he was the one that won out. With Kyle, he was the first person I was sure about because he made me laugh at Kurt because Kurt could be such a cardboard cut-out villain if played a certain way. Kyle did him in a way that I got it. It’s not as simple as, “Oh, he’s racist.” I like his sense of humor. He brought so many layers to that character. The cast was telling me who the cast was. They were just walking in and bringing my movie to life in a way that was greater than I had dreamed. That’s a sign of really great actors. I just feel so lucky that they walked into our door.

Paste: You have Teyonah Parris, who plays Coco. She’s been in A Picture of You, They Came Together, and Mad Men—I am seriously obsessed with her at the moment.
Simien: She’s worthy of your obsession. (laughs) Teyonah and I were actually friends, but frankly, I never even thought of her as Coco until she walked into this audition with a wig, blue contacts and this outfit I’d never seen her wear. She just slayed it.

Paste: The film premiered at Sundance and has made a very thorough festival run. Has the audience reception been different based on geographic location?
Simien: It’s always enthusiastic. The crazy thing is people—particularly with Sundance, which is mostly an older, Caucasian, cinephile audience—the laughs come in different places. They’re enthusiastic about it, but it’s completely different than when we played in New York to a mixed crowd of white and black people. Again, the laughs come in different places, but there’s an electricity because they’re discussing it and they saw different things in the film. In Atlanta, it was like being at a rock concert with mostly black people. It was ridiculous! Every audience gets something different from the film. I’m just glad they’re all getting something from the film.

Paste: I’m sure you’ve seen the movie plenty of times throughout its festival run. Do you think the film changes the more you watch it?
Simien: I think the parallels between it and what’s happening now in society—I couldn’t have predicted that. It’s saying interesting things about that which I didn’t necessarily try to say or expect to say. If I made the movie today, I would emphasize other things just because my experiences have changed and have further informed me as a storyteller. I’d say, yes. The context of the film has changed a bit. Not in a good or a bad way, but it’s certainly shifted just a little bit. It makes me very interested in the idea of going back in and, say, like a television series, and continuing to tell the story as it evolves. It’s made that more interesting to me.

Paste: It’s been a while since we had a film that frame the “race conversation” in a different way. Do you think it will encourage other filmmakers of color to continue the conversation?
Simien: I sure hope so. At Sundance, Tessa almost brought me to tears. She was talking about being an actress of color and how she loved art house movies made by auteurs—and those movies never have casts of color. She said, “I’ll never be shot like that. I’ll never get to be photographed in a movie in an interesting or unusual way because I’m relegated to certain kind of movies.” I think it’s such a shame that those things are mutually exclusive. That doesn’t make any sense. Audiences that show up for a Wes Anderson film—I’m in that audience. I’m not in the audience for whatever Tyler Perry put out last. This idea that Hollywood has adopted that certain minority groups only show up to certain movies is really crazy and in no way reflects what is actually happening. My hope is that stories that are unique, interesting, artistic and are saying something different can include casts of color and stories of color. It doesn’t even have to be a black or Asian or gay movie—it’s just a movie. It’s an experience.

Dear White People is currently playing in select theaters and opens in wider release on Friday October 24.

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