Indie Film’s Newest Director Darling
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this aggressive, wildly talked-about film wants to make you uncomfortable — in a funny way.
“Dear White People: Please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?”
“Dear White People: Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.”
“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.”
Cue the uncomfortable laughter — which, if it does its job, will get white people, black people and everyone else thinking about race a bit differently. That’s the hope of 31-year-old breakout director and former awkward nerd Justin Simien, whose film Dear White People hit theaters in October.
The movie is the culmination of more than eight years of filming, editing and directing. It all began — inevitably these days — on social media. Just as some novelists test out characters by featuring them in short stories first, Simien tested his on YouTube and Twitter. The hair quip premiered on Simien’s edgy Twitter account @DearWhitePeople in 2012.
And along came a movie that was one of the most anticipated small-budget comedies of the year. Armed with an Indiegogo campaign and a concept trailer shot with tax refund money in May 2012, Simien exceeded his financial goal of $25,000 in three days and raked in close to $50,000. He hoped a few people would watch the trailer; instead, it hit more than a million views. Simien soon found himself on CNN and The Huffington Post promoting a movie that had yet to be filmed. With so much momentum heading into production, the film practically punched its own ticket to Sundance in January — where it took home a special jury award, and Simien was officially on the map.
I never had the right haircut, wore the right clothes or liked the right things.
— Justin Simien
It’s a banner year for black entertainment, from Shonda Rhimes’ dynamic duo of Kerry Washington (Scandal) and Viola Davis (How to Get Away With Murder) to the premiere of the ABC series Black-ish, which centers on an upper-middle-class African-American family wrestling with cultural roots. But that success hasn’t translated to the cinema. Yet.
Dear White People began as an “unwieldy and aimless” screenplay — Simien’s words — titled 2%. Over eight years, while the project morphed on camera, Simien was also building his characters off script. First came the Twitter account in 2012 to test out the inflammatory voice of his lead character, biracial Samantha White. Then YouTube skits featuring the other characters.
A gay black male, raised in Texas, Simien grew up struggling with what he thought of as “standard” black male identity. His outsider status is visible in all his characters: There is provocative Samantha, whose unending stream of inflammatory comments about white people is both funny and ironic because of her mixed-race status; there’s the Afro-sporting nerd Lionel Higgins, who spends the film dealing with his pariah status as a gay black man like Simien himself. And there’s the son of the university dean, Troy Fairbanks, who seems on a quest to be the golden boy of black maleness; the aggressively assimilated Colandrea “Coco” Conners, who prefers not to rock the boat and would skip the “Fight the Power” rhetoric, thank you very much. The characters each battle their own community’s expectations as much as white perceptions.
“I’ve gone through all of those phases of blackness,” baby-faced Simien explains of his cast, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus, weighing in on black issues of the day with impeccable comedy. “I never had the right haircut, wore the right clothes or liked the right things.” And though high school was a momentary relief, Simien’s college days at the predominantly white Chapman University in Orange County, California, felt like awkward middle school all over again.
Perhaps a more accurate, though less comedic, title for the film might be Dear White People, and, Asterisked — Also Black People, You Listen Up Too, as it seeks to address rifts within the African-American community as much as the gulf between black and white.
“We all walk around with our black identities for our black friends and our uber-black identities for our white friends who like our black identities,” Simien says. “It’s stopping us from being real people.”
Simien’s cast is a star roster: Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris), Teyonah Parris (Mad Men) and Tessa Thompson (For Colored Girls). The film went into production last summer on a limited budget (a “couple hundred thousand dollars,” Simien says) and debuted to rave reviews.
But the million-dollar question: Is the film really that good, or does it just have the best hype machine ever?
“I enjoyed the film, but I was also unsettled by the times that I laughed alone and the times that the crowd laughed without me,” says Brooklyne Gipson, whose review for Complex stood out because she didn’t buy all the hoopla.
“Now that I’ve seen it, I feel more uneasy than satisfied. I’d like to report otherwise, but writer-director Justin Simien’s debut feature undermines its own efforts at generating an honest debate about race by pandering to white audiences.”
— Brooklyne Gipson, Complex
Of course, above all else, Dear White People is a comedy, and it’s about laughs. And if you share in the laughs, you can feel like an insider, despite the film’s obsession with outsiderness. The butt of the jokes? Taylor Swift, Gremlins, you name it.
Yet it’s telling that Simien’s influences aren’t comedic ones, but dark and uncanny films or social commentaries. It was the dream of making work like Stanley Kubrick’s erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut and Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing that encouraged the former theater geek to leave his menial production job and bet on himself.
A middle-class kid raised in a two-parent home in Houston, mild-mannered Simien moved out to California for college at Chapman. After graduation, he headed to Los Angeles to work studio jobs, first as a publicity assistant at Focus Features, then as a social media manager at Sony Television. It’s been three years since he struck out on his own, and he doesn’t plan on pausing anytime soon.
He’s a wide-eyed believer in the idea that pop culture can fight some of the deep psychological insecurities young minorities face — he believes he might not have felt so awkward as a young man if he’d had access to more diverse images of the black experience. “There are kids who need to know that it isn’t the end of the world if you are different.”
Next up? Three other films are in the works — he says they’re all under wraps — and Simien’s authoring Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-Racial Harmony in ”Post-Racial” America, released at the end of October.
“I wanted to make an impact and want this to be the centerpiece of an ongoing conversation. That’s why it’s called ‘Dear White People’ — I want people to pay attention to it.”
This piece was originally published Oct. 19, 2014, and updated as of Dec. 20, 2014.