Dear White People is doing extremely well in its limited release and the many debates and topics that have come out of the film are starting to gain some traction. Though this film may not be big, it has a lot to say about our youth, white culture, black culture, the college experience and about identity. I was fortunate to sit down with Writer/Director Justin Simien and am proud to say that it was easily the most intelligent and eye-opening interview that I’ve yet to do. Please enjoy and do make it a point to seek out Dear White People when it opens in a theater near you!
(This interview was originally published on nicktiffany.com and The Daily Cougar on October 22, 2014)
Nick: Hi, I’m Nick Tiffany. Nice to meet you.
Justin: Hi, how are you doing?
I’m doing well, thanks!
This film, at times, made me very uncomfortable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not because I felt targeted or responsible, but more-so because I have witnessed such treatment and stereotypes towards blacks. It reminded me of the “Yes All Women” movement on twitter that brought a lot of unfortunate truths to the surface. If anything, what’s the reaction you’re looking for from your audience?
The thing I keep saying is that I wanted to make a movie that leaves people feeling some type of way. So, you might have laughed and you might have enjoyed yourself, but there is this thing in the back of your head that’s not quite resolved. To be honest with you, as just a movie goer, the movies that do that to me are the movies that I remember. They’re the movies that I watch over and over. Those are the movies that have changed my life, you know? They’ve sort of changed the course of the way I think about something , or think about some aspect of myself. One of my favorite– my favorite reaction from the film was from my producer, Lena Waithe, who’s also my best-friend. She’s read every iteration of the movie, she’s read every draft, she was on-set shooting, and there’s nothing about it that would’ve/should’ve surprised her. When she watched the first rough cut, she wasn’t talking. I was like, did you hate it, or why aren’t you talking? She said no, it was amazing. So, I asked her why aren’t you saying something? She said, because I’m really fucked up right now. And I said why are you fucked up right now? She said I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I’m Sam, but I think I may be Troy. *laughs* I was like, OH MAN THAT’S IT! THAT’S WHAT I WANT! I love movies that make me see myself in a way that I didn’t see myself before I walked into that theater. That’s what I wanted to do and my favorite movies– I.. I struggled with during the first viewing. You know, I felt uncomfortable and I had to work it out. That’s really what I wanted to do. So, I’m glad that you were a little uncomfortable. *laughs*
A colleague of mine, who’s actually a filmmaker, a couple of years ago he said that the black community needed more satire. But, he said the black community probably won’t understand it and appreciate satire. That they’re more into slapstick comedy that’s stereotypical or generalizing the community. What would you say to somebody that has that belief that a black audience won’t be able to understand satirical comedy?
Well, you know, I think it’s this thing that we always sort of do. We sort of see ourselves as a monolithic people. I think that there are some members– and I know this just because we’ve tested the film and I’ve seen the film play in many, many cities now at this point and at festivals for festival audiences– we’ve played it for: community activists, general movie-going people, and I’ve seen it play to many different kinds of audiences and many different sorts of racially mixed audiences, all white people, all black people, and then different kinds of black people and different kinds of white people and I will say that there are certainly members of the black movie-going audience that don’t necessarily know what to do with the movie at first. Maybe because it didn’t look like what, frankly, we’ve been fed for the past 15-or-so years. I think that one of the things I talked to– we were talking about it yesterday in Chicago, was the fact that it took Spike [Lee] three movies. It took She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing before like “OHHHH, GOT IT. Black Movies can be like this now. Got it. Okay, cool.” Then you have Robert Townsend and then you had Love Jones and then you had the 90’s, where like black films were kind of everything. Then gangsters and rap happened and that was a whole other thing, but up until that point, you had: black horror movies, the street stories, the comedies, the spoofs, the love stories, everything. I think there also is a number of the black community that is soooo thirsty for something different and I think the fact that– you know this was a movie that had 25,00 fans and $50,000 raised and I think that spoke to that sort of hunger that audiences had for something that was different. I think it’s true that there are some members of the black community of movie-going audiences that will think that this is nothing like Think Like A Man and wonder where Kevin Heart is. Then, there are members of that audience that will think “THANK GOD! THIS IS NOT Think Like A Man!” I think we’ll get both of those when people see the film.
You had this very funny scene where the characters go to the theater and they didn’t want to see a Madea film and they’re told that the film showing has 2 Chainz in it. *all laugh* I thought it was hilarious, but a lot of people criticize Tyler [Perry] and I’m wondering how much of that responsibility and criticism do you put on him and his art, versus the consumer and what we patronize?
I don’t put it on Tyler at all, actually. I don’t even fully put it on the consumer. I actually put it on the industry, because the industry is– we don’t really live in a world where the industry makes movie because they love movies. It’s a commodity and they create products for monolithic people. If they can’t figure out the nuances of their audience, they’re not going to make movies for them and that’s really the problem. When Tyler Perry came along, black films in general had kind of died down. The studio had kind of stopped trying to figure out how to make movies for black audiences and then Tyler came along with an audience already– he was already a playwright and he had already amassed his people, and he came in with a tailor-made audience and Hollywood was like “Okay, cool. Let’s just do that now and nothing but that.” That was the problem. Tyler Perry finding an audience and buying an island off of the money he made by making movies for that audience, I actually have no problem with. The problem I have is that the industry then says “Okay, well cool. That’s all you get.” I didn’t see myself in those movies, you know? I saw myself in movies that didn’t have any people of color in them, more than I saw myself in Tyler Perry movie. That’s okay, though, because Tyler Perry doesn’t have to make movies for me. Just like how I don’t have to make movies for people who want to see his movies. It’s not his problem, but the problem of the culture and the industry around him.
When you first had the idea for ‘Dear White People’ in 2006, you were attending school where the population was predominantly white. May I ask what sparked the passion to create this film and how has societal change in the last 8 years affected your film?
For me, it started with conversation. I was just having conversations with my friends in college about the black experience at this particular college and how funny it was, because I was part of the Black Student Union and I was involved, but we would have this group of people who we would always hangout with and when certain members of that group started to get on our nerves, we thought “do we just hangout with them because we’re all black? Like, would we have even been friends if we weren’t in the Black Student Union together?” Just sort of pointing out how some people acted differently around their white friends and their black friends and just the awkwardness of being a black person at a mostly white college. We were just having that conversation in a laughing kind of way and it felt like a new conversation that wasn’t really being had in the culture and in the media. It also was a way for me to pay homage to the kinds of films I loved from that arthouse movement– we’re talking about School Daze, Hollywood Shuffle, and Do the Right Thing and we talked about them in a sort of humorous way. That’s how it started and as I got older and into the work force and realized that I’m still a black face in a white crowd and I’m still kind of dealing with these issues, that’s when the movie became more of a satire. That’s when it became more about the American experience and it’s a college movie, yeah, but it’s what it’s always kind of going to be like for me. That’s sadly when the culture– a lot of things that were completely satirical when I started writing, now happen every day. The idea of a group throwing a blackface party is kind of more commonplace now, because when I first wrote the screenplay there was only one instance of it in the news. Now, it’s like four or five a year, if you don’t count celebrities showing up to Halloween parties in blackface. So, that’s been bizarre to see society catch-up to it and the people who sort of– with the tragedies of Ferguson and Trayvon Martin– this idea that we’re post-racial… a lot of post-racial bubbles have been burst. That’s been interesting to see that happen.
I found it extremely difficult to come up with questions and criticisms with your film, as I’m not entirely sure what more I could add or ask. I feel like many people feel this way about a number of issues, because they’re not sure what they can say, or if it even matters. I’m a white male reviewing and critiquing a film that deals with black culture, its perception, and the inner-workings of certain types of racism and prejudice. Why does my opinion matter to you?
I think it would be a mistake to see my film as just being about the black experience. As a moviegoer, I’m accustom to seeing movies– I’m a huge P.T. Anderson fan and he’s got a new movie coming out. There’s not going to be a black person in that movie *laughs*, but I’m going to see that film and I’m going to see something of myself in that film just because he’s a great filmmaker and he’s speaking about the human condition. Ultimately, my film is really about identity issues and the sort of thing that happens to who you act like you are in the room, or how you think other people see you in the room, and how that differs from whom you really are. That’s something that I feel like every human being that’s walked this Earth has had to deal with, particularly in American, where how you’re perceived is EVERYTHING. It’s more important than your educational background. I’ve walked into a room with a resume and it doesn’t even matter, as long as I held the room; it’s how you’re perceived. I feel like I’m talking about this very human thing through a black lens. Therefore, black issues, race politics, white privilege, and all these other things are going to be on the minds of my characters. What it’s actually about is the human condition. I would hope that you and others would see through, I guess, the “buzz” and the back-and-forth about this black-and-white and see what the movie’s really about; these four characters who are trying to navigate who they are, verses how they’re perceived in a place where they’re not represented at all. I think we’ve all been in that room and I think we’ve all had that experience.
We talked about identity issues and that brought me to the character of Samantha. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood with a few black people, there were always those who were overcompensating and trying to be extra black, but behind closed doors they might have been dating a white person or they might have been of mixed heritage. How important was that for you to show that side of black America, the one who wants to seem more down than they really are to fit in with their peers?
It was really important and it’s such an interesting angle that often isn’t seen. The colorism thing has come up in some of the Q&A’s and I’ve gotten “Why is she a light-skin girl?” Well, there’s a dark-skin girl too in the movie, but you didn’t mention her which is interesting. Anyway, the idea is that we often have a light-skinned black woman in the leading role in a black film, but her heritage is never discussed. The conflict of having a black parent and a white parent and what that does to you in this society is never discussed. Tessa, who is of mixed race, describes that whenever she’s cast– and her parents are always there, that they always don’t know what to do. They never cast a white person and a black person. It’s always two light-skinned people. They don’t want to even– the just want to act like there’s nothing complicated about that experience. She’s light-skinned, so let’s move on. I thought that it would be really interesting to get into that because it’s something that’s never really been gotten into. I wanted to get into this thing about being authentically this, or authentically black and show the struggle of that. One of my favorite parts about the Malcolm X movie and his life story that people don’t focus on is when he comes back from Egypt and he doesn’t want the divide of the races anymore. He actually wants to bring us together, but he’s stuck in this role now and the nation of Islam is not cool with him being out of his image that they’re using to sell the Civil Rights movement. That, to me, is a really interesting aspect of it, because that really– talk about identity versus self. When you’re Malcolm X and you realize that authentically, what you believe is opposite of what Malcolm X believes, what do you do in that situation? That’s kind of why I wanted her to be of literally of two worlds and having to pick a side. Also, that’s my mother’s experience. My mother is very light-skinned, creole, and she grew up in segregated Louisiana and she felt this very distinct pressure to have to pick a side. Either you’re going to pretend like you’re white and do that for the rest of your life, or you have to double down on the blackness *laughs*. You gotta tease the Afro out and make it happen. I just thought that was an interesting and never talked about thing that we try to pretend is something that doesn’t go on. It comes up in Q&A’s because people still try to pretend like it’s not going on. They feel some kind of way about me putting it out there .
Mr. Simien, this is easily the most enlightening and interesting interview I’ve yet to do. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the success of this film.
Thank you for the unique perspective and questions! Have a wonderful rest of your day.
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