“For a person of color, or if you’re a woman, or any sort of marginalized community, it’s so tricky bobbing and weaving other people’s assumptions about you… And that’s been my experience. I think the more people are open to other people’s experience, the more we realize we’re all kind of having the same experience.”
Those are words from Justin Simien, writer, director and producer of Dear White People, perhaps one of the most buzzed about indie films of the year. Those words also could be considered the crux of his movie, which won the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. Dear White People is a satire that follows four Black students at a fictitious, nearly all-White, prestigious university as they navigate campus life and racial politics in the “post-racial” age of Obama.
Justin Simien began writing Dear White People while he was actually living it—a 22-year-old in college himself at Chapman University in California. He combined experiences that he was having with those of his friends to create the film. Fast forward to 2011, when Simien was working as a film publicist, word spread that a producer was looking for a film like his. He completed his screenplay, and hatched up some brilliant guerrilla marketing to drum up visibility and buzz—in the way of a hilarious @DearWhitePeople Twitter handle and a promotional trailer—and it worked! @DearWhitePeople set social media ablaze, and today, with the release of the film, anticipation for the film has reached fever pitch.
EBONY.com sat down with Justin Simien (along with Tessa Thompson and Teyonah Parris, two stars from Dear White People) to chat about the film, Simien calling reality TV the new “black face,” what scene broke Parris down in tears, and a whole lot more.
EBONY: What’s been the reaction from White people about your film?
Justin Simien: I’ve had the occasional White audience member that maybe too closely identified with someone they didn’t want to, and felt some kind of way about it and needed a second to process, and tried to process that with me in the lobby. It can be a little uncomfortable. But at the same time, I feel like it means I’m doing my job.
I have to look at movie going as a subjective experience. Everyone’s going to have a different one. But the majority of people who come out of this movie, regardless of race, regardless of age, regardless of gender, are getting it and connecting with it in some meaningful way.
EBONY: Don’t you think you’re setting yourself up when you make a movie called Dear White People?
JS: This Black scholar I was talking with on the road was telling me that waking up to racisms in current America where racism is not as obvious as it used to be, it’s more covert, you have to look at the numbers to see it sometimes… for some people they have to go through the stages of grief. And the first stages of grief are anger and denial. If people are having an anger/denial moment while watching my movie, that’s okay. At least they’ve begun the stages.
EBONY: What character are you in this film?
JS: At this point of my life, I’m all of them: well integrated, or at least better integrated than they were in college. In college, I entered as Lionel, kind of intimated by the Black kids in the BSU, and I left more Sam, comfortable and very much associated with my blackness, almost to the edge of militancy. But then as I entered the workforce, I was a bit of a Troy and Coco. I kind of had to shuck and jive my way around certain situations. So I feel like I’ve been all of them. And now I’m a character I haven’t written yet.
EBONY: You touch on it in the film and in your Dear White People book. You say “reality TV is the new blackface.” Tell us how you really feel.
JS: It being called “reality” is troublesome. Because for some people, even people of color who grew up watching these images over and over again, it’s real people, it’s not scripted, [and] that’s what they aspire to be, or that’s what they subconsciously feel like they have to be. And then for people who have no actual contact with people of color, that’s what they assume we’re all like. And in that way, it operates a lot like the minstrel shows of yesteryear.
And as I thought about it, they actually use a lot of the same tropes. In some ways, a “housewife” is a “mammy,” and a “zip coon” is very close to some of these sort of pet gay Black characters in the lives of the housewives… Part of the idea that it’s reality absolves us from the fact that, no, these people are handpicked by producers and written for, and then edited down and encouraged to play up, certain aspects of themselves for entertainment value.
But the rest of us are sort of absorbing this as real life and it’s a little dangerous. And I say this as a person who has a least three of these kind of shows read’ to go in my DVR. (laughs)
EBONY: There’s this idea that we live in a post-racial America. Do we?
Tessa Thompson: We live in a post-Obama era, and some people make the argument that we have a Black president so we’ve come really far. I think we live in a real tenuous time with talking about race. After Dear White People, I worked on this movie, Selma, that is about the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And when those images came out, I think Entertainment Weekly put some images out that was everything happening in Ferguson, and the way that those images sort of mirrored each other was striking.
And I thought of the incredible parallels between what was happing in Ferguson and what happened in Selma 50 years prior, and also the huge difference in the way that the communities organized. And so I think the space that we’re living in now is a space where we really want to talk about things but we don’t quite know how to, because we think that we’ve come too far to have to.
EBONY: When you first got the script what was your initial reaction?
TT: I’ve been in this space where I think the film, maybe Justin doesn’t say this, but as much as it’s talking about race in America, I think it’s low-key a little indictment of race in Hollywood and its treatment of people of color. And how it perpetuates stereotypes and perpetuates a situation where people are marginalized, and there aren’t enough voices coming forth. I felt really excited to have something that wanted to be honest and talk about that.
EBONY: Is there any scene that you struggled with that you really had to dig deep that challenged you?
Teyonah Parris: It was the moment when I was getting dressed to go to the party. Not when Coco was getting dressed, when I was in hair and make-up for Coco for that party scene. I remember putting on the foundation and it was like four shades too light, and the blue contacts, and then the blonde hair. I remember just looking in the mirror and I felt so uncomfortable and I actually started to cry.
Justin and I had to have a few words, because for me, I was so overwhelmed by the image that I was staring back. Because I know that there are women in this world who feel like this is the only way that they can look beautiful… And that that is the way that they operate and navigate this world and feel like that’s the only way that they can be accepted, appreciated, loved, admired and desired is to look like this blonde-haired, blue-eyed, light-skinned woman. So I had to dig deep.