'Dear White People' Director On Identity, The Myth Of 'Reverse Racism' And Steve Urkel As A Proto-Queer Nerd
It's no secret that the landscape of the movie industry is predominantly white. A scan of this year's box office returns will show that the first film to have at least one lead actor of a darker complexion comes in at #15. Even the top performing film of the year to date features three non-white actors whose skin tones are covered up with body paint or a CG costume. That's why when a film like Justin Simien's Dear White People—a witty, sharp, incisive, and hilarious satire about racial identity in a white society—comes along, it feels like Mookie throwing that garbage can through the storefront window of Hollywood.
If you ask Simien, though, he doesn't seem to think he's quite the shit-stirrer. "I think I'm holding up a mirror. At least that's the intent anyway," he tells LAist when he's asked whether or not Dear White People, his first feature film, holds up a mirror to its audience or drops an "ideological piano." In his own film, Sam (Tessa Thompson) is posed the same question of 'mirror' versus 'ideological piano' after she screens her student film, a silent send-up of D.W. Griffith titled Re-Birth Of A Nation to a classroom of her shocked and speechless, mostly white, peers. "I think there are a lot of characters in the film that attempt to drop ideological pianos. I don't think the film cosigns any of them," Simien adds.
There are certainly a lot of characters in the intertwining narratives of Dear White People, but the film focuses on four students who must navigate their personal and external perceptions of themselves at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University: Sam, a college radio host and the result if "Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed off baby;" Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an "only technically black" gay nerd who who "listens to Mumford and Sons and watches Robert Altman movies;" Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert) who has aspirations that differ from his father's expectations; and CoCo (Teyonah Parris), an aspiring starlet most sympathetic to insensitive white people. All make up the core characters that set to shatter expectations that Dear White People will speak to the notion of a singular 'Black Experience' that gets bandied about in culture. "The idea that the 'Black Experience' is one monolithic thing, having to encounter something so ridiculous like that everywhere you go, sort of is the 'Black Experience.' It is my 'Black Experience' as well." He's also quick to point out that he doesn't think Dear White People is about racism, per se. "I think that my movie is about identity. And racism is a natural backdrop to any movie about that."
And while leading off with a Spike Lee comparison may also fall under the same monolithic 'Black Experience' trap that he is trying to defy, it's a comparison he seems to welcome and even invite. In July, Simien introduced Lee's debut feature She's Gotta Have It ("One of my favorite films of all time," he said onstage) at LACMA as part of the Academy's Spike Lee retrospective, and during our conversation made the comparison between Do The Right Thing and Dear White People unprompted.
It's not hard to draw a parallel between the two films, superficially. Both are satires about race that lean on almost theatrical humor and drama for effect, and whose cast of characters take paths and make choices that lead them to a singular chaotic climax. Simien cites Lee's film as an example and inspiration of how to delicately handle a subject as volatile as race. Despite the pointed title of Dear White People and the focus of the film on the militant and outspoken voice of Sam, Simien still does not outright demonize white people or the hegemony of white culture. "I think it wouldn't be fair if all of the black people were perfect and all of the white people were evil. That doesn't make sense, that's not reality. One of the great things about [Do The Right Thing] is that no one does the right thing. Everyone makes understandable human mistakes that leads to its conflict."
The origins of Dear White People go back to Simien's own college experience. Originally from Houston, he attended the predominantly white Chapman University in Orange County (62.1% white, 1.7% black according to CollegeData.com), where none of the events that transpire in his film actually happened during his tenure, but the tensions existed for the script. "The point of view and subject matter came from my direct experiences. We had our fair share of conversations on campus about not being heard by the mainstream culture."
Lionel is the character one could tie to Simien, who is also gay, the easiest. Lionel's voice is, at first, literally the most quiet of the four protagonists. His passiveness arises from a lack of feeling a sense of belonging that is difficult to untangle from his sexuality. When asked about the perception that homophobia is stronger in black culture than elsewhere (don't forget the scapegoating of African-Americans for the passage of Prop. 8), Simien thinks it's much more complicated than it seems. "I do feel a hesitancy within popular black culture to embrace images of homosexuality. Part of that is because black culture is a marginal culture, it's hard to define, and the images of black people are very limited so the images of everything within it are limited. There are stigmas and religious beliefs and all sorts of things that are a part of black culture that are not terribly encouraging of being black and gay. It's an issue that we do face."
"There's no version of [Lionel] in popular black culture, and there's no version of him in popular white culture. He feels like he doesn't belong in either. That is the experience of a lot of queer people of color," he says. Though he does suggest Steve Urkel as a proto-queer nerd. "In a way we've been primed for the black gay nerd."
But he says he also adds that he wrote himself into all four characters. "[Lionel] was always a version of me. And so was Sam as well. And Troy and Coco were variations of me in the workplace. In school, that awkwardness of not quite fitting anywhere was certainly something I could relate to [in Lionel]." Even graduating from college offered no relief from his identity crisis. "I entered the world of publicity, which is an even more extreme version of social politics and clique-ing. Out of the pot and into the frying pan."
He already had an early draft of the script done by 2006, and shortly thereafter Twitter emerged and became an extremely helpful writing tool when he created @DearWhitePeople. "'Dear White People' was something that was already in the lips of my characters, especially Sam. And when I made the decision to give her a [college] radio show, I thought, 'I really need some material for that.'" Twitter became the sounding board from which he could toss out 140-character rebukes of white people, and the jokes that got the most retweets made it into the film. Example: "Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count."
With a trailer and an Indiegogo fundraising campaign in 2012, Simien was able to get the ball rolling on his project, leading to a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year where it won an award and has garnered accolades since. "I'm very excited obviously and I'm very curious as to what people are gonna do with this movie. It's not mine anymore. It's up to everyone else now." In addition to the film, Simien has a YouTube channel of the same name filled with how-to guides and PSAs about black people (including "How To Fake That You Watch Scandal"), and is also set to release a book later this month as a companion piece. Similar to the pamphlet Sam publishes in the film, Dear White People the book is written as a humorous guidebook where the reader can "find out if now is the right time to wear blackface or say the n-word."
As for the most obvious critique of the film, Simien has this to say: "There's no such thing as reverse racism. You're not statistically at a disadvantage being born a white person in this country than you are born a woman or a person of color. And that's just the truth of American Life. Prejudice and racism are different. A joke about white people dancing has no impact on the lives of average white people, whereas jokes about black people and reinforcing stereotypes about black people do have an impact on the lives of everyday black people."
Simien hopes that his film will inspire conversation about a subject that has become even more of a hot-button issue due to tragic events over the past year. "I don't want to make something that lulls you into a sense of security. [I want you] to need to talk about something in the lobby. That's the ultimate goal."
So in a sense, Dear White People is a piano being dropped on its audience; a film that its writer-director hopes will keep its audience on its toes instead of something to watch to kill time. While nothing in Dear White People is as shocking as the death of Radio Raheem at the end of Do The Right Thing, a blackface frat party in the film's climax will leave viewers aghast. Although originally removed from earlier drafts of the script because he felt it was too outlandish, Simien actually put it back into the story when actual blackface parties began making headlines across the country. Beginning with the infamous UC San Diego "Compton Cookout," a photo slideshow of them serves as the beginning of the film's end credits.
If the seeds of Dear White People came out of Simien's college experience, does that mean Chapman itself had one of these blackface parties?
"Not one that I was invited to."
Dear White People will be released in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta this Friday, October 17. It'll be released nationwide on October 24.