"Dear White People, there's no need for a Dear Black People. Reality shows on VH1 and Bravo let us know exactly how you feel about us.”
When Justin Simien created the Twitter account @DearWhitePeople in 2010, he was a movie publicist in Hollywood, spending his spare time writing a film script that he couldn’t get made. Four years later, his movie Dear White People—a smart, funny satire of race relations on a college campus—is opening in theaters on October 17, after raising $50,000 on Indiegogo and winning a special jury award at Sundance.
Simien, now 31, started working on the script in 2006 while a student at Chapman University, a private college in Orange County, California. He used the Twitter feed to gain fans and funding, and also to hone the voice of his main character: Samantha White (Tessa Thomspon), a biracial, politically radicalized film major at a prestigious, predominately white college, where she hosts a campus radio show, also called “Dear White People.” The film follows Sam and three other black students navigating a campus environment that’s both familiar and dystopian; the film is bookended by a frat party with an “Unleash Your Inner Negro” theme. Last week, I sat down with Simien to talk about writing and directing the movie, the myth of “post-racial America,” and Shonda Rhimes.
Esther Breger: The Twitter account gave you a lot of traction, and then you got a lot of support from the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Could you have made this movie through more traditional systems?
Justin Simien: Absolutely not. No way. There were so many things against it. First, it’s multi-protagonist—that’s one ding if it’s your first movie. The second thing is that it’s about black people and it deals with racially specific issues. And third, it does so in a way that hasn’t really been done since the late ’80s. There was no clear financial model for the movie. So we needed the concept trailer just to get into the room. And once I got into the room, inevitably it would turn into the same conversation: There’s no foreign sales since there’s black people in it. How is it like such and such movie that made money last year? Even though they saw the success of the concept trailer and understood in a clear-cut way that we had a substantial fan base and liked the project, there was this real hesitancy to make the movie. It definitely could not have happened in any way, shape, or form through the traditional channels. No way.
EB: A lot of early reviews of Dear White People have mentioned Spike Lee, and there are a couple references to him in the movie. Was he an inspiration?
JS: Spike is an inspiration, I think, for any black filmmaker. He’s just one of the greatest Americans filmmakers of all time. When I saw Do The Right Thing it was the first time that I saw a movie that I loved that much dealing with stories of people of color in such a bold and unique, art-house style way. But it was also loud and it was mainstream. He really opened the door for there be [movies that] tell any unconventional story about black people. I don’t think that we’re the same kind of filmmaker per se but the comparison is incredibly flattering.
EB: A.O. Scott wrote that it “seem[ed] to draw equal measures of inspiration from Whit Stillman and Spike Lee.” There’s a very Whit Stillman, Wes Anderson-eque stylized aesthetic.
JS: I love movies that admit that they’re movies. Spike certainly does that. Wes Anderson does that. P.T. Anderson does that. Kubrick, Bergman, Fritz Lang, De Palma—those are in my Parthenon of directors. These guys who create their own worlds. There’s a theatricality to it that really resonates with me, especially in a move about identity and the falseness of identity. I wanted to put the movie in a slightly artificial, heightened reality for that reason.
EB: How much of the movie is based on your own experience?
JS: The movie is inspired by me being a black person in a white place throughout my entire life. There’s a scene with Sam explaining her childhood that really comes from my childhood, and there are certain aspects of my college experience that are threaded into the film. And then there are certain things that I researched, like the prevalence of the blackface parties. The ways in which closed-circle loops of really smart white people come up with really horribly offensive stuff—some of that came with research and some of it just came from our popular culture. I really want to talk about the American black experience at large in the movie through the microcosm of the school.
EB: You worked on this project for seven years. Has American culture’s approach to these topics changed over that time?
JS: When I started the film we were in that post-racial bubble. When Obama was elected president, we were in this place where we thought we had overcome racism—I mean, I wasn’t in that place and most black people weren’t, but anything to the contrary was really ridiculed in the media. That was the environment when I wrote the film.
And now we’ve really come full circle, to this place where racist incidents in the country are almost too exploited by the media. With Trayvon Martin, it took ten days for the first news piece to air. For Ferguson, the entirety of news media moved into that town, and in some ways probably escalated the tension there. We’ve become a culture that really is feeding upon the idea of a racist America. It serves a purpose—it enlightens people to a truth, which is that we’re still entrenched in racism. But it also exploits it for commercial purposes, and that makes me uncomfortable as well. If I wrote the movie today, I’d probably want to say more about that.
EB: Has that cultural awareness changed the reception the movie’s been getting?
JS: I think it feels even more zeitgeist-y than it ever did before, and I can’t take credit for that. When a racial incident happens it becomes this firestorm of media and attention. Ferguson just happened and we’re still there, we’re still talking about it endlessly. That removes some of the barriers people have to talking about the subject matter.
EB: One recent example was the Shonda Rhimes article—
EB: … in The New York Times. Have you been following that?
JS: That was just, ugh, what a minefield. That was just a classic Dear White People moment. This reporter [TV critic Alessandra Stanley] who I truly don’t believe understood how offensive that was—she couldn’t have, you know—and just stepping right into it. And I don’t know if there was a black person working at The New York Times who just didn’t come in that day, because if anyone else scanned that article they would know—you can’t say that! This is going to cause a shitstorm! This is the classic micro-aggression, a well-intentioned white person just pissing off an entire community because they thoughtlessly put them all into one little box. Which is the most oppressive feeling for a person of color.
EB: To say that all of Shonda Rhimes’s black characters are the same.
JS: And that they’re just angry. They’re not complex in any way; they’re just angry. And you would never think to do that with a showrunner that wasn’t black.
EB: Do you watch “Scandal”?
JS: I do. And I can’t wait for “How to Get Away with Murder.” Shonda Rhimes is doing her thing. We actually put out a tongue-in-cheek video about it today [on the Dear White People Youtube channel]. I’m more of a casual “Scandal” viewer than someone watching along every week. And I always get a lot of flak for it from my black friends. It’s like, Well, how are you a black person? You’re not watching “Scandal” every week. So we made a video: For the black person that doesn’t watch “Scandal,” how to fake that you’ve watched “Scandal.”
EB: You mentioned that you researched college blackface parties while writing the movie.
JS: Yeah, I talked to college students. The thing that shocked me was how prevalent these are. I don’t think I even realized how often they happened and at what levels they happened. And I didn’t talk to anyone who threw a blackface party but I certainly read a lot of interviews and watched Youtube videos with people who did [to find out] how such a thing could happen. There were people who were truly ignorant of the way they made other people feel. They didn’t do it to intentionally hurt someone’s feelings. They were trying to connect to and appropriate a culture, and they didn’t realize how oppressive that would feel.
EB: Which of the characters were most like you in college?
JS: Probably Lionel [a young, gay writer who feels uncomfortable in the black community] . Coming into college with no identity at all, and leaving with a very hard, crystallized identity. I entered Lionel and left Sam, I like to say.
EB: Are you still like Sam?
JS: No, I don’t think so. I think all of my personalities have integrated a little bit more now. And while I’m still as entrenched in the black experience as ever, I don’t feel the pressure to separate my experiences like I did in college. Now, I’m much more comfortable being my strange, complex self without the need to sort of fit in the box.
This interview has been edited and condensed.