"You absolutely have permission to laugh," "Dear White People" writer-director Justin Simien said at yesterday's Sundance screening before a largely Caucasian crowd at the Eccles. "You got your honorary black card with your Sundance ticket."
And laugh they did. Every joke (and the 2-hour comedy is chock-full of them) in Simien's racially charged satire landed, resulting in one raucous screening.
Simien's debut, which was Indiewire and Tribeca Film Institure's first-ever Project of the Year, is a freewheeling ensemble piece set at a fictional Ivy League college that explores racial identity in Obama's America. It centers on how four black students each react when they learn of a planned 'African American' themed party, thrown by white students.
"I went to a private school," Simien said during the post-screening Q&A, when asked if he attended a college similar to the one shown in the film. "It's a 'PWI': a predominately white institution.
"I definitely had some of these experiences, though nothing as extreme as what's on the screen. Really the script came from a research process looking into what happens in schools where there were race based residence halls. Looking into schools where these sorts of parties take place and continue to take place. I really wanted to put on the screen a microcosm of the new black experiences, because I'm a black person moving between different crowds and different cultures."
"It was just fresh," actress Teyonah Paris said, when asked why she took part in the project. "It's a point of view from someone who is going through similar things. I just wanted to be part of telling our story in a way that doesn't ostracize anybody, but pulls everyone in to say, 'Look, this is what it is.'"
Paris cited a recent incident during Sundance when a woman on Main Street came up to her and remarked how wild her hair was, to emphasize just how relevant Simien's film is.
"It's important to start a dialogue," Simien added. "Admit we're in weird place and call shit out when it happens. That's why we made the movie."