Three years after making his auspicious debut with “Dear White People” — and ahead of the upcoming TV adaptation coming to Netflix — writer/director Justin Simien has answered the question he’s been getting asked since before his film even hit theaters: Why did he name it that? “Had I made a terrible mis-calculation?” he recalls wondering after receiving harsh questions at early screenings of his film and being subjected to overt racism online. “Had I doomed my film and career to obscurity because I dared to put the words ‘white’ and ‘people’ next to one another in my title?”
Thankfully not — after winning a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance, Simien went on to receive strong reviews for “Dear White People,” and is writing the first 10 episodes of the Netflix version. But a boycott of the show has been called for on some corners of the internet (you can probably guess which), and so now he feels compelled to respond.
In his Medium post, Simien reveals that the movie’s original title was “2%,” a reference to the percentage of black students at the fictional Ivy League university where his film is set. “Sending ‘Dear White America-isms’ back and forth had become a snarky but satisfying past time initiated by my friend,” he writes. “During such an exchange it dawned on me that ‘Dear White America’ would make a great name for the radio show hosted by firebrand Samantha White, a divisive fictional character in a screenplay I’d been writing called ‘2%.'”
“But the title had to go,” he continues. “‘Number titles’ never worked, I’d been told, assisting in the publicity department at Focus Features. ‘2%’ was too nondescript. This film needed something…louder.
As a sort of dry run, Simien made a Dear White People Twitter account. It did well, and the popularity of websites like Stuff White People Like and Shit White Girls say further emboldened the aspiring filmmaker. “It occurred to me that by naming the film itself Dear White People I could tap into the burgeoning meme culture as well as make a meta-commentary about the controversies within the film,” he recalls.
“As a title it felt right. It was a clutter buster, the kind of thing that made you sit up and go ‘What is THIS going to be?'” continues Simien. “Perhaps naively I assumed that most people would move quickly past their knee jerk reaction, whatever that may be, take a look at my little art film about the lives of black students, and either be surprised or validated by seeing themselves in characters mostly absent from popular culture.”
Simien offers more thoughts and insights in hist post, which can be read in full here.