Dear White People is the clever feature debut of Houston native-now-Los Angeles-based writer, producer and director Justin Simien. The winner of this year’s Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent is a satire that chronicles four diverse black students each struggling to find their identity at a fictional predominately white Ivy League university.
Having already directed a series of short films, Simien’s unapologetic film was inspired by his undergraduate experiences as one of very few black students at his alma mater, Chapman University. The film and theater major tackles Obama’s presidency, color consciousness, interracial dating, hair texture, hip hop, reality shows, sexual preference, father/son relationships, white privilege and Tyler Perry movies on screen.
Dear White People is also inspired by nationwide news headlines reporting white fraternities on various college campuses hosting parties mocking black culture. Some of the article clippings appear in the end credits. Dear White People, which Simien originally titled Two Percent during the script’s infancy in 2006, was the cathartic process he used to become more comfortable with his racial and ethnic identity.
“The theme of the film centers around identity versus self,” says a crossed-arm Simien. “I had to make peace with all of the different parts of me. Walking through the world as a minority is complicated. Whatever identity I create, no matter how useful it is, ultimately I have to let it go to be a bigger version of myself. That’s the lesson I learned.”
For inspiration, Simien says he looked up to Star Trek, Spike Lee, Wes Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers and Ingmar Bergman. He doesn’t believe he’s a comedian under any circumstances. “My knack is storytelling that I tell from a place with a very specific form of humor,” says Simien. “I just want to tell the truth about the human condition from my point of view as best as I can.”
Dear White People’s concept trailer, which Simien refers to as his “visual pitch,” began streaming in May 2012 and quickly went viral. Shortly after, an Indiegogo campaign was launched with a $25,000 goal. The financial goal was met and surpassed in three days. Simien even sat in on screenwriting workshops and included some of the harsher criticisms in his work to give the story more substance.
Shot on University of Minnesota’s campus, Dear White People was constantly met with resistance from studio executives even as national media began to pay close attention. Simien believes executives couldn’t relate to the subject matter nor did they believe there was a market for black art-house cinema. Simien, both openly gay and working in publicity and marketing in Hollywood for eight years, saw Dear White People as an opportunity to develop characters that mainstream films often don’t include.
“I’m gay and black, and that puts you in a sort of gray area of what kind of black man you’re supposed to be,” says Simien. “There was no version of me in the culture that felt true, so I was in no man’s land.”
Despite the lack of faith some had in Simien and his multiethnic team, their creative efforts paid off. Dear White People earned top honors at both Tribeca Film Institute and Sundance. Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions inked a deal to distribute the film later this year. Simien doesn’t care to replicate making the same type of film.
He believes memorable films have original stories that are brave enough to defy conventional story arcs and character development. “You don’t get anywhere trying to make a movie based on what you think people are going to like or based on what you think has worked in the past,” says Simien. “You don’t get anywhere doing that. If you want to make a cultural impact, you’ve got to tell the truth. Tell the story that’s burning deep inside of you.”
One of the next projects on Simien’s radar is the web series, Twenties, executive produced by Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment imprint. He makes it a point to credit his equally diligent best friend, Lena Waithe, as the creative force behind the project. Tightlipped about sharing Twenties’ details, he did confirm that he’s directing the series. “I read it, and I was like ‘I’ve got to be a part of this.’ It’s her world and voice. She’s getting that project pushed further, but you’re definitely gonna see it,” says Simien
Dear White People was this year’s closing film at the Atlanta Film Festival. Completely sold out, it was the final cut’s third overall screening. The theatre was full of laughter and humorous gasps throughout the film’s 108 minute running time. “You never know what movie you’ve made until you screen it for an audience,” says Simien. “People at Sundance laugh at different moments that people in Atlanta or New York. It’s been a pleasure to see the movie play to such different audiences and seeing it connect on very different ways.”
Even as Dear White People’s accolades and popularity continues to grow, Simien remains humble about the hard work, dedication, patience and perseverance the film required. “It’s great to know that I did something that a lot of people told me wasn’t gonna happen or there was no model for it,” adds Simien. “I made it. That’s a really powerful thing, and I’m grateful.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.