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Meet the 2014 Sundance Filmmakers #36: Justin Simien Reflects Deeply on Interracial Conflict in 'Dear White People'

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 16, 2014 at 3:30PM

Even in modern times the issue of race nevertheless remains a volatile one, and that fact is rarely explored as passionately or profoundly as in Justin Simien's "Dear White People," a dramatic feature film that fearlessly brings increasingly heated racial tensions to the forefront.
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Justin Simien
Justin Simien

Even in modern times the issue of race nevertheless remains a volatile one, and that fact is rarely explored as passionately or profoundly as in Justin Simien's "Dear White People," a dramatic feature film that fearlessly brings increasingly heated racial tensions to the forefront.

What It's Really About: Events leading up to a race riot at a predominately white Ivy League University through the eyes of four of its black students.

So What It's Really About: Culture's influence on the inherent conflict between identity and self. Black people are constantly being told by the culture in ways both subtle and overt how to be and what's expected of them. I wanted to, through the microcosm of a school setting, get into issues about trying to figure out who you are in a culture that doesn't reflect you.

Tell us briefly about yourself. I'm a filmmaker and former publicist originally from Houston, Texas. After years working my way up through the industry, I decided to leave my job and pursue getting "Dear White People" made, when a concept trailer I created for the film went viral on YouTube.

What was your biggest challenge in completing this film? Self doubt. It's a killer. It's THE killer. It isn't the "thanks but no thanks" from executives, the limitations of budget, or even restraints of time that were the biggest challenges. After each "failure" and before each perceived obstacle, I really had to face myself and make the conscious decision to keep going and find a way to make it happen. It took eight years since the first draft of the script, but it was worth it.


What cameras did you shoot on? We shot on the Red Epic.

Did you crowdfund? If so, via what platform. If not, why? We crowdfunded on Indiegogo for seed money to get us through pre-production while we raised production and post funds.

What do you want your Sundance audience to take away from your film? I want debate and conversation. I love films that ask questions and hold up the mirror to human behavior, leaving the audience to decide what to do. I hope that there's an opportunity in watching the film for audiences to, in some way, recognize the conflict between their own identity and selves. Race aside, we all spend so much of our lives living as others see us. Even though I'm discussing it from a "black" perspective, it's a universal aspect of the human condition.


Have any films inspired you? So many! Some perhaps more obvious influences would be "Do The Right Thing" and "Hollywood Shuffle," but I also found major touchstones in films like "Barry Lyndon," "Persona," and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

What's next for you? Collaborating with producing partner Lena Waithe for her television project "Twenties" for which I directed an online presentation she wrote: http://bit.ly/1eJw54V. I also have a script I've written and a couple I'm developing that I think would make exciting follow-ups to "Dear White People."

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2014 festival. For profiles, click HERE.

This article is related to: Meet the 2014 Sundance Filmmakers, Sundance Film Festival, Dear White People







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