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Interview: Justin Simien Talks Racial Politics in ‘Dear White People’ + Hopes for Black Cinema’s Future

Interview: Justin Simien Talks Racial Politics in 'Dear White People' + Hopes for Black Cinema's Future

It’s been a whirlwind year for “Dear White People” writer-director Justin Simien. When the concept trailer for his racial satire about black students at a predominantly white Ivy League university hit the internet last year, it immediately went viral, sparking heated debates on everything from the film’s provocative title to the nuances of black identity.

And after a successful crowdfunding campaign, the movie went from being an intriguing concept to a full-fledged festival darling: in the span of a few months it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews, arrived at the ND/NF series at Lincoln Center to packed audiences, landed a big distribution deal with Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, and is now finally slated to premiere this Friday in theatres.

Running on the festival circuit on the heels of the highly lauded black films of last year including “12 Years a Slave,” “Dear White People” is a refreshing anomaly – a quirky, highly stylized portrait of four black young people grappling with aspects of the black experience that rarely go represented on screen. I spoke with Justin about his views on the film’s reception so far, its racial politics, and his hopes for black filmmaking in the future:

Zeba Blay: So, first off, how do you feel? Just in general. Within a year, you have this amazing Twitter campaign, you’ve gone to Sundance, and now the film is finally being seen by a larger audience. How do you feel?

Justin Simien: You know what, I’m like…it hit me this morning, just how grateful I really am. I’ve wanted this for a very long time. I was blessed enough to know that I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a kid, the first time I realized that that was something people did for a living. I’m [in my thirties], I’m a relatively young man and it still has felt like a lifetime of fighting to get to this place and… And it just really feels validating that this is for me.

Yeah, you made something people actually connected to.

I made a movie and people dug it and they got something out of it and, you know, I sort of feel like I’ve arrived at my first day of work, you know what I mean? I passed the interview, I got hired, and now I’m ready to get to work. So…it’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling.

Well, maybe you can talk a little bit about why you made “Dear White People”?

I made the movie for a bunch of reasons. I think the emphasis was two things, I just felt like no one was really talking about the Black experience that I was having and in general there really weren’t a lot of movies that were talking about the black experience. At all. There were black movies, sure, but they weren’t really getting into the essence of what it meant to be black in the way that movies of the late 80s and early 90s did.  And there really was at that time, a black smart house. There were movies that were smart and had casts of color and they made money. Movies like Love Jones, Hollywood Shuffle, Do the Right Thing and Boyz in the Hood.

I started writing the “Dear White People” script because I wanted to do something with a cast of color that was unexpected.  Movies that have a certain aesthetic point of view and are maybe a little quirky and untraditional in their storytelling and are telling a very specific story about a very specific experience, we see movies like that with white casts, all the time. And they find audiences, they’re released by every kind of distributor under the sun, they do well here, they do well overseas, and they’re just…it was just weird and crazy to me that we didn’t have that with a cast of color.

Identity is something for me that really stuck out in this movie. The four characters that we follow, are all struggling in their own way with who they are and what they’re trying to represent to the world. I know you’ve said that you had initially had ten characters in the film. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what made you finally decide on these particular four archetypes of the black experience?

They just felt the most quintessential. There was a version of the script that has many, many characters… I just didn’t think that it was possible for budget reasons. So I focused on four of the more common ways that people of color deal with being a black face in a white place. And when I say deal with I mean I feel like there’s this pressure on the person of color who walks in many different cultural theatres, as I do, as any upwardly mobile black person does,  to come into those spaces with a fully formed identity. People expect you to like certain kinds of music, to have an opinion about certain things and to wear certain things and to say certain things, and to fit a certain role as a person of color in their cultural sphere. That’s a really hard burden to sort of walk the world in, it’s a weird one too. It’s one that we all sort of deal with in different ways, and to me, Sam, Coco, Troy and Lionel were four quintessential ways that I constantly saw people of color, myself included, dealing with that issue. And they were also characters I frankly just didn’t see in other movies.

There are couple of white characters in the film. We have the fraternity guys led by Kurt, the cool guys on campus who are cluelessly racist. Then we have Sam’s TA, Gabe, who I found to be a really interesting character. He’s sort of the Nice White in the film. He’s the one that we sort of don’t hate.  And there’s been discussion about the sense that people are upset about Sam’s possible involvement with him. What are your thoughts on the reactions to people who feel uncomfortable with a white romantic love interest?

I think the reaction is good. Actually, the reaction is what I want. You’re supposed to walk away from the film and have questions. You’re supposed to ask yourself the questions, you’re supposed to feel challenged by the choices the characters make in the film because a lot of times, people just make choices that feel right to them in that moment and you might look at a couple in a relationship and be like how…what the hell are they doing together? Because that’s how life works. I think Sam is a person who is sort of playing a role in the film and is desperately looking for someone to see her as who she is. It has nothing to do with his race and for me.

Well, I suppose that any movie with the title “Dear White People” is bound to ruffle feathers.

None of the characters leave the film without blood on their hands. Every character does something that is morally questionable. Kurt is the other white character. Kurt is no exception but Kurt also does things that are actually kind. I find him to be very kind with Troy when they’re at the party. I also think that Kurt actually, in a weird way, gets Sam, more than some of the other characters do in the beginning of the film. I don’t see Kurt as a racist, I see Kurt as someone who doesn’t understand the impact of his words. He’s ignorant to the black experience and so he’s very flippant about it.

Real racism in the world of the film is the school itself, the environment in which Kurt gets away with things and Sam doesn’t. That’s how I see racism. I see racism as institutional: the rules are different for me, because I’m black. It’s not necessarily someone’s specific attitude against me, it’s just the fact that I as a black man have a much harder time making an art-house movie and getting it released than a white person does about their very white point of view. That’s racism. That’s the way racism actually works, it’s not easy and simple. I’ve tried to make everyone a little mixed up and at times you hate them and at times you like them because again, that’s human, that’s telling the truth.

There’s such vitriol towards the movie as a concept. Towards the idea that someone would make a film calling out all of the little microaggressions and things that we, as people of color, experience on a daily basis. It’s part of the landscape of our lives but the fact that you’re actually calling it out is making [some] white people really upset. Can you talk a little bit about, the reactions that you’ve had from white people to the film?

Honestly, most white people that I actually talk to just start chuckling like “Oh my god, that’s the best title I’ve ever heard in my life.” Most white people that I talk to, in my sphere get it, and think it’s funny. There’s a very subtle shift between what I’m saying and Stuff White People Like. Stuff White People Like was written by white people and is basically saying very similar things. They’re pigeon-holing themselves but I think because it’s coming from a black person, there’s a knee-jerk reaction of feeling challenged. The truth is that if you’re not interested in hearing from other people’s points of views, you just might not be the type of person who’s even open to the experience of this movie in general.

Does that bother you?

I don’t let it stop me when I see a trailer for Her or a trailer for Nebraska, and I don’t see a black  person in that movie, from going to see it. I don’t care that it’s from a completely different point of view… I just want to see a story. And it’s interesting that some white audiences feel challenged by the idea that we’re owning in the movie’s title that this is from a black point of view. I think it’s interesting that they would feel so challenged by that because every person of color is consistently being asked to engage in aspects of culture that aren’t from their point of view. It’s sad. I think it’s better to be provocative than to be quiet.  Particularly with this subject matter I’d rather people get angry and have to have conversations like this than it just sort of slip under their radar. So maybe in a year or two or five, they’ll finally see the film and think, oh shit, what was I so mad about?

This is your first film, and it’s made quite a splash. What kind of material do want to be making going forward?

I’m a lover of film and storytelling. I believe that I was put on earth to tell stories and I’m not interested in telling the same stories over and over and over again. I’m sure that films that I make in the future will have even more outrageous things to talk about and some will have less. I don’t know. Filmmakers that I love like Spike Lee and Ang Lee and Stanley Kubrick and Bob Fosse, and Fellini, filmmakers I look up to, never made the same movie twice. I hope to be the same. I want to make movies in every genre… I hope to just continue to make work that I really believe in and that I think will have an impact and I think says something that needs to be said. I think that’s really the only thing I can hope for as a filmmaker.  

Who inspires you?

Stanley Kubrick. He made movies that he wanted to make and every single time he made a movie, he did things people specifically  said you could never, ever, ever do. He didn’t care what the critics said, he didn’t care how long it took, he just made masterpiece after masterpiece and people didn’t even get them. [When 2001: A Space Odyssey] came out, people were totally split on it, it was panned by critics and the studio didn’t get it, no one got it, and then it made a bunch of money and it’s a masterpiece. How do you do that? I don’t even know how you do that in today’s marketplace and he did it every single time. I’m constantly going back to his films for spiritual, artistic nourishment. I think he’s had the biggest impact on me as a filmmaker, out of anybody.

Do you think there’s a kind of renaissance in black filmmaking? And what are your hopes for black people in film going forward?

I really hope that black stories can get told in ways that are outside of the current paradigm, you know? Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave were masterpieces, and some of my favorite movies of last year. I’m so glad that people like Ryan Coogler and Steve McQueen exist because they’re just fantastic artists who make these fantastic movies and audiences know their name and go see them. That’s just a huge achievement in and of itself and I hope that can continue.

But why can’t we have a Her and why can’t we have a Wolf of Wall Street, too? I feel like the black art-house is sort of stuck in the past, in tragedy in the past and tragedy in the present, and you know, I feel like the future that’s interesting to me is movies that have a cast of color and color is never mentioned, or we talk about different aspects of the black experience that are just as interesting and controversial but haven’t really been touched on at all.

So my hope is that in some way, my movie paves the way for new kinds of stories to be told with diverse casts that reflect America, because America is diverse. And movies should just reflect that because that’s what the people who are going to the movies look like. It doesn’t necessarily have to even be about race to in some way make a statement about race. That’s what I hope is next.

Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions opens “Dear White People” in theaters this Friday.

RELATED: Sundance Review: ‘Dear White People’ (A Cinematic Answer To The Year Of The “Race-Themed” Film)

Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.

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