It’s been a good year for Justin Simien. In March his debut film “Dear White People” was Indiewire and Tribeca Film Institute’s first-ever Project of the Year; last week Variety listed him as a “Director to Watch” and yesterday it was announced that his film was selected to compete in the US Dramatic Competition at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival.
“it was always the dream to premiere at Sundance,” the first-time writer/director told Indiewire. “I certainly felt like the film was worthy of it. We put in a lot of work to have it finished in time (to submit) for the festival.”
The feature about four black students who attend an Ivy League college where a riot breaks out over an “African American” themed party thrown by white students, is a satire that explores racial identity in postracial America. “The film is more about identity than racism,” said Simien.
The idea for the semi-autobiographical film has been gestating for years. Inspired by his experience at college, Simien said he wrote the first draft of the script in 2005 and began to workshop it with actors in 2011. The following year, he made a trailer to use as a pitching tool, but when that went viral (along with a @DearWhitePeople twitter feed), Simien and “Dear White People” garnered national attention.
Around that time, Simien launched an Indiegogo campaign hoping to raise $25,000. The response was incredible and he easily surpassed his goal, topping $40,000.
Then the film was voted an Indiewire Project of the Day, Project of the Week and finally, our first-ever Project of the Year.
“It was great. It was a way to prove that we have an audience,” said Simien about being named an Indiewire Project of the Year. “It was validating. It was awesome to see that so many people were excited about this movie they hadn’t seen yet. It showed us there was an audience.”
Simien said the film garnered a following because there was such a demand for a humorous, nuanced film about the black experience. “Black audiences are thought of very myopically by Hollywood. It’s been a very long time since there was an artful comedic approach to black material,” said Simien. “People were excited that it was something different than an inner city kid with a gun or a movie about slavery.”
As a winner of “Project of the Year,” Simien was invited to the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival to participate in the Filmmaker/Industry Meetings hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute.
“Getting to go to The Tribeca Film Festival was awesome,” Simien said. “We had a bunch of amazing meetings and made a lot of great contacts. It was a nice burst of energy.”
After TFF, Simien said “we had a lot of meetings with a lot of studios. We had a lot of conversations with studios and distributors and basically, we decided that the best offer on the table was from an independent financier, Julie Lebedev of Code Red Films. To make it independently, that was really the dream — because then we could make the movie we wanted to make.”
They shot the film in late September over about 23 days mostly in Minneapolis and partially in Los Angeles using a RED EPIC digital camera.
“I would love to shoot on film. I don’t believe it’s completely dead, but this format made a lot of sense for our production,” said Simien.
As a young black filmmaker, Simien knows he’s likely to be compared to black filmmakers who have come before him, such as Spike Lee. Simien said, frankly, he’d be flattered. “Spike Lee is a master filmmaker. To be mentioned in the same breath as him is an honor.”
That said, he hopes not to be pigeonholed. “I’m not the next Spike Lee. I’m the first me.”