“Dear White People” was one of those first features we often see at the Sundance Film Festival that charges out of the gate exploding with all the things the young filmmaker wants to say. In this case, L.A.-based one-time publicist Justin Simien, 30, is exploring millennial race identity at a predominantly white Ivy League college.
“Dear White People” debuted in competition at Sundance, where it won a special jury award and was picked up by Roadside Attractions, which opens the film in theaters on October 17.
With a solid target audience of college students and millennials, it will be fascinating to see how Roadside handles the release given that the project started out as a provocative concept trailer that went viral in 2012 on Twitter (@dearwhitepeople), Facebook, Vimeo, crowd-funding site Indiegogo (which raised $40,000) and YouTube. This provided investors with reason to back the
rookie filmmaker’s first feature. Among those responding to the trailer were producers Stephanie Allain (“Boyz ‘n the Hood”) and Effie T. Brown (“Real Women Have Curves”). Allain jumped on board the project but later pulled in Brown in February 2013, as Allain had to go shoot another movie.
Brown found a fully-formed script that “you could see a path on a logistics and creative level,” she says. “I’ve worked with a lot of first-timers. Justin knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it.” They did streamline the script a bit. “There were multiple protagonists, and everyone has something to say. I know those characters, I grew up with them. I am often the only black face in a white place, many of the people who caught on to this film were once those kids. Those are problems I had. I loved how Justin brought it up, it was satire. I loved Kyle Gallner’s line, ‘what’s really hard is to be an educated white guy in America.’ There’s a wee bit of truth there. Nobody’s all wrong and nobody’s all right.”
The film, shot digitally in 21 days last summer with two weeks in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is based on Texas-raised Simien’s experience going to Chapman University, says Brown. “It’s his story, he is a combination of all those characters, they stemmed from him. He was the only black face; was his face black enough for the black kids, white enough for the white kids? ‘Who are you?'”
Working in marketing and publicity at Paramount, Participant and Focus Features, Simien had written the script but started in 2011 and 2012 to concept test “Dear White People” with “Don’t touch my hair,” which gained traction on Twitter. “Everybody chimed into it and laughed about it at same time,” says Brown. “That made it OK, it was funny, viral, people had a sense of discovery. Social media made sense of how to navigate. He knew how to galvanize an audience.”