Back to IndieWire

It All Started at a BSU Meeting: Justin Simien on ‘Dear White People’, Raven-Symoné, and the Black Art House (Interview)

It All Started at a BSU Meeting: Justin Simien on 'Dear White People', Raven-Symoné, and the Black Art House (Interview)

There’s a scene in Justin Simien’s debut feature “Dear White People,” where Samantha White, the
outspoken black college activist, film student and host of the controversial
campus radio show, “Dear White People,” gives a film presentation reimagining D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth Of Nation,” using white-face
actors to illustrate the fear of a black president. The classroom reacts,
stunned. Later, she engages in a personal debate with a white, male classmate. They
seem to have a genuine connection, or even a friendship.

In this way, the film operates as smart, satirical exploration
of identity and the ways it fluctuates- how notions of blackness, of race, of
allegiance become fluid, complicated, and even invalid behind closed doors, and
even outside of them. The film centers on four, black students at an Ivy League
school who find themselves in a firestorm of controversy when plans for a
race-themed party ignite fierce tensions.

We’ve seen these stories before, college Halloween parties
where white people dress in blackface, reenacting racist desires of “blackness”
for a night. Simien gives it a unique, memorable treatment here. I caught up with Simien to discuss his film, his thoughts on Raven-Symoné as a colorless human being, and how a BSU meeting sparked a film
movement.

“Dear White People” opens Friday in theaters.

Nijla Mu’min: Can you talk about your overall inspiration
for the film? I know during the credits, the images of the race-themed parties
seemed to be the direct inspiration, but maybe there’s a personal experience
that you’ve had that sparked it?

Justin Simien: It really started with me in college at a BSU meeting sort
of laughing with my friends, and wondering, would we even be friends if we
weren’t black? Is the fact that we’re black and in the Black Student Union, the
reason we’re friends, and isn’t it funny how when so and so comes over, you
talk like that and when your white neighbor comes over, you talk like that, and
we talk about different shows around different people and we were having these
conversations about toggling our race identity and dating people of other
races, and dating within the race and all of these things that were kind of
funny and interesting and I was like, why isn’t this the black experience that
I see when I go to the movies, or when I watch the new show on TV.

And particularly in 2006, it’s a little better now, but in
2006, it was rough. Tyler Perry was connecting with his audience and Hollywood
was like, that’s the black audience, like “Got em’” and I was like where am I
in that movie? I don’t see myself. I’m glad my mother is getting a life but
where am I and it was sort of exasperation at not seeing myself in the culture
but also I love the art house, and when I say the art house, I don’t just mean
little, independent movies but movies that really aim to be about something and
say something and I love those movies, and you never see people of color in
those movies.

Forget about those movies even being about the black experience,
we’re just not in them, not even playing the neighbor, and it sort of felt like in
a coded way, black people and our lives are not worth that kind of attention
and when it comes to the complexity of the human experience, we don’t get to
factor into that.

So, it was me wanting to make something like that about an
experience I was having, wanting to pay homage to the black art house that came
and went before I was even making movies, that Spike and Robert Townsend and
John Singleton were doing, and that’s really where it started. It was like the
perfect storm of all those experiences I was having as a young person in
college.

NM: I definitely felt that. I know you probably heard Raven-Symoné in the interview with Oprah, saying she’s a colorless human being and
she’s not black, she’s not gay, and there are a lot of films lately that
position black leads without commenting on their race. Your film very cleverly
addresses race, sexuality, and gender in the Obama-era. I’m wondering how you
feel your film functions in this day and age, around these conversations about
race and race neutrality?
 

JS: There is something powerful about there being a black lead
that never has to say “I’m black” and at the
same time, you always have to tell the truth. It is frustrating having to walk
through America having to bob and weave people’s impressions of me because they
see a tall, black guy walking down the street. That is frustrating. I am more
than a black guy. I am a person, I’m storyteller, I’m a son, I’m a friend, so I
am all those things so it is frustrating to a degree to be limited by other
people’s perceptions of me but at the same time, it is true that I am a black
guy (laughs) and you know it’s like I’m rooted in, but not bound by. That sort
of mentality, that’s the one that I hold to be true.

But the thing is, I get where Raven is coming from because
while I think a lot of people will take offense to that, at a certain point,
white people don’t have that problem, they get to go through life never having
to fit into a box, and by the way, it’s really more so true for white men
because even just being a woman, you sort of have to walk around other people’s
assumptions of you and it’s so exhausting and there’s a sense, especially among
young people of wanting to just live your life, not having to wear the weight
of that pressure and I think my movie deals with identity through that lens
because that is a pressure that people of color feel, that gay people of color
feel, that women of color feel,  and it’s
like why do I have to wear the weight of other people’s assumptions? It’s
everywhere I go and it’s exhausting. 

NM: And I think that’s definitely something your film touches
on. We see a lot of dramas and a lot of comedies featuring black characters, but
I felt that if this film were just a drama, it would be so different, but I
wanted to ask, why satire? Why this genre as opposed to another genre?

JS: Part of it wasn’t conscious. It is what came out when I sat
down to write. I think there’s not a dramatic version of this in me because if
what you want to do is talk about ideas, you write a novel, you have a lecture
about those ideas. Satire and comedy are really the only film mediums where you
can get into ideas and have people leave the theater without being moralized.
There are dramas about race and the intention of those films is very clear.
Racism is wrong, racism is very dangerous. These are the consequences of
racism, but I don’t think that’s something that needed to be said by me, that’s
been said and it’s needs to keep being said, but I wanted to talk about
complicated ideas, and I wanted to have a film that felt like a discussion and
humor allows you to do that.

It short-circuits a part of you that feels like you’re
listening to a talk, or taking your medicine. When you throw the plates up,
people don’t feel so attacked and you can kind of get stuff out there and play
with it in a non-threatening way and I look at movies like Network or
Bamboozled. Really great satires and they’re able to do that because it’s not
real. They’re able to do that because it’s just a movie, right? You’re lulled
into having a very real conversation because you’re laughing.

NM: You talk about these ideas
but can you talk about working with your actors and how you pushed them to be
more than an idea, but to be a full-fledged character?

JS: There were a lot of conversations before we shot the movie
about what are we saying, what does that mean, why do you have her do that, we
got those out of the way, and then by the time we got to set, it was really
more about the moments. I’ve been an actor before, I’ve spent some time there
and as a director I think my role is to know when to get in the way of
something that’s not working and when to get out of the way when it is working,
and I worked with each of them very differently but it was always about the
moment, like it’s not about black or white politics, it’s about you trying to
get him out the door, or you trying to get this person to hold you, it’s about
the moment, because if the characters aren’t real, if their lives aren’t
realistic, if you call bullshit at any point in their journey, then the rest of
it is invalid.

NM: I felt, especially with Tessa Thompson’s character, very
human struggles-

JS: She’s incredible.

NM: I also loved the visual design, and how you captured this
Ivy League setting and its many factions. What were some of your conversations
with your DP (Topher Osborn)
 in constructing that?

JS: I’m very interested in clans and the way people group
together, and there’s a lot of group shots. There’s a lot of people in
positions that people feel like they’re in attack mode, kind of pointed at each
other in the frame. I’m not a big fan of shooting something that looks like it
could belong in any movie, I’m not a fan of okay, “wide shot, wide shot, medium
shot, close-up, close-up, we’ll figure it out in post.” I hate that. I love
when scenes are intentionally and meticulously planned so we feel like this is
a handcrafted scene that only works in this moment and this movie, and that’s
the way I approach my films.

For this film in particular, I had two really cool
advantages and checkpoints on my agenda as a filmmaker, which is far too seldom
are people of color filmed with an artful eye. If it’s not cinema verite or
tragic documentary style, it’s sort of normal, generic Hollywood close-up,
close-up style and it’s very rare that you get people of color framed
interesting ways that are making references to the French New Wave and Ingmar
Bergman, we just don’t get those opportunities and I get a subversive thrill
when I’m like yeah, I’m making a movie with black people in it and it’s going
to reference persona, it’s gonna have classical music in it, it’s going to do
all the things that my favorite films do, and it’s going to do it with black
people in it so are ya’ll ready for that? I hope so.

NM: I went to UC Berkeley and though it’s not Ivy League, I still
related to that college experience, and the way you framed it.

JS: You know, we screened in Boston and a lot of the “I, too, Am
Harvard”
kids came down, and they were like “We know it’s a satire but low-key
this is our lives, and it’s freaking us out how accurately you portrayed it”
and that was my concern. To a degree, I’m hypothetically speaking to a college
experience I’m removed from but unfortunately, that’s what people have been
going through for decades. I mean I had people saying “I haven’t been to
college in 30 years and this is the exact thing I was going through. 30 years
ago.” 

NM: Can you talk about your scriptwriting process and how many
drafts you went through?

JS: Man, I went through countless drafts and I’m
evolving my scriptwriting process right now and I think at the time of “Dear
White People,” I locked myself away from the world and wrote, wrote,
wrote and then showed it to a few people, cringed over the feedback, wrote more and showed it to some people and the feedback was a little better, then wrote again. I wanted to tell a
story from multiple points of view that strove to tell a complicated truth
which meant that I had to be open because a lot of time people would read it,
and it really wasn’t criticism about the writing, it was about the message, and
even when someone said something that made me say: “Oh, that wasn’t my intention
at all,” I had to be open to what they were saying because they were telling me
a truth. 

There’s a version of the screenplay that got a really negative
response from the reader who felt like the film was just “blacker than thou
propaganda” and I took that phrase and it just tore me up inside and I said, wait
a minute, that’s brilliant. Let me give that line to Coco, and she says it in
the movie. She says, “Sam is just blacker than thou propaganda” and it opened
it up and made it even better, to be open to that kind of feedback, so for me
it was a process of opening and trusting and continuing forward even though
what I was doing was difficult, it really wasn’t an easy path before me.

NM: Can you talk your massive crowd-funding campaign and what
that vehicle did for you, and the film?

JS: It was amazing, we didn’t expect that. We had a great piece
on Shadow and Act, we had a Youtube trailer, and I had
my momma’s email, and that was kind of it, I didn’t think we were going to
reach 100,000 views in two days. It was beyond us, and I still get stories
until this day from people I meet saying “Two years ago, all I saw on my Facebook
page was your trailer,” and that blows my mind, and at the time, it was just
confirmation like the universe saying I know it’s been hard but this is what
you gotta do, you gotta keep going because up until that point, it was just
hypothetical that anyone would want to see this movie, because there was
nothing like it.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged