When Justin Simien was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast to talk about Season 2 of his hit Netflix series “Dear White People,” the writer-director-showrunner revealed that before going back to work on Season 3 he will shoot his long-gestating horror film “Bad Hair.” Simien has already started casting and will shoot this summer.
“[‘Bad Hair’] follows a girl from Compton who doesn’t have the right look,” said Simien. “She doesn’t have the right hair, she doesn’t have the right face, she doesn’t have the right skin color. She wants to be a VJ in the late ’80s, early ’90s and she makes a bit of a Faustian bargain with this woman who takes over the network where she’s at and she ends up with this hair, this weave in her head, that may or may not have a mind of its own.”
The “Dear White People” creator described the film as being “cheeky” and in the tradition of horror satires like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Stepford Wives,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and “Get Out.” He also said the film is a tribute to his mother, aunts and the other black women in his life.
“It’s my way of taking my frustration of what I feel like black woman are going through, who we rely on for so much – politically, culturally, just in terms of the family dynamic – and we put them through hell,” said Simien. “We make them suffer quiet little deaths just to be seen in our culture and I wanted to translate that, in my own way, into a very weird horror-satire love letter to that experience.”
That Simien should reach into film history to find a way to express his feeling about today should be no surprise to fans of “Dear White People.” While on the podcast Simien talked about his thought process in creating what he calls the show’s highly stylized, “presentational” visual style. Beyond the need to play off the audiences expectations of each character, Simien also admits he has a strong desire to see faces of color in the types of cinematic frames that made him fall in love with movies.
“The cinema I grew up with didn’t have black people in it, and with very few exceptions,” said Simien. “Spike [Lee] and Ernest Dickerson, in particular with ‘Do The Right Thing’ brought a lot of the French New Wave, brought stuff from silent movies, just brought to bare a lot of cinematic techniques that before them no person of color would ever find themself in. You have to go back to Oscar Micheaux before you can see anything that looks like cinema with black people in it, or that’s about central black characters.”
Simien described the style of the show as being somewhat of a pastiche, with influences ranging from classical music to hip hop, and quoting movies ranging from Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” to the more lowbrow films of Brian De Palma.
“All of it is meant to say, all of these cultural cues that we as a society have collectively decided [are] for white people, it’s actually for everybody and everybody should have the opportunity to be part of this postmodern cultural moment,” said Simien. “Just because it’s a black character, it doesn’t have to be gritty or shaky or darkly lit.”
The filmmaker Simien watched the most growing up was Stanley Kubrick, who he said had an enormous influence on the use of score and soundtrack in “Dear White People.”
“Kubrick introduced a new way to think about music – it’s not just to accentuate emotions in a Kubrick film, music operates almost as a counter to the scene,” said Simien. “Before Kubrick, sure there were a lot of amazing composers, but that desire to make something symphonically that could just stand on its own to just be under a scene, that was not the focus of music in cinema before Kubrick. And what it does, it just adds an artistic richness to it, it’s not just there to tell you what you already know and make you feel what you already feel, it’s there to counter and add to the scenes.”
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The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.