I’ve been trying to come up with something sharp and funny and surprising to say about Dear White People. But you know what? There is nothing I could say that would be as sharp and funny and surprising as the movie itself. It is excellent; you should see it. The Twitter feed turned concept trailer turned Sundance darling will finally be in select theaters on October 17, nationwide October 24.
Dear White People follows four black students at a fictional Ivy League — and predominately white — university, each of whom is trying to figure out who they are and how they want to claim, or disown, or celebrate, or reconcile with, or what have you, their race. There’s Lionel, a quiet gay kid with an enormous afro; Coco, a media-savvy and ambitious climber who wants to leverage her race into fame and success; Troy, a clean cut, do-everything-right kind of guy; and Sam, a rabble-rousing activist whose radio show gives the movie its name. Simien’s been there, to all of the theres: “I’ve claimed no identity, like Lionel. I’ve hinged everything on my black identity, like Sam. I’ve tried to be the correct black male like Troy. I’ve tried to use my blackness to get ahead, like Coco. I’ve kind of done them all.” In the middle of all of this status-wrangling, a high-profile student group decides to throw a blackface party. Hilarity and horror ensue.
On a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to promote his new movie, Dear White People, writer-director Justin Simien rallied from his sleep-deprived state (promoting a buzzed-about movie can have that effect on a person) to talk blackface parties, interracial relationships, how identity, race and perception are all tied up together, and white people touching his hair.
On why college is the perfect setting for a story about race and identity:
I think college is such a great microcosm for a larger American experience, particularly this sort of vaguely Ivy League college. I wanted to deal with the aspect of America where everyone is sort of cutthroat and has ambition and wants it. I wanted my characters to be in that particular environment. There is a lot of ‘black faces in white places.’ For me, I left my home community I went out into the world to do something particular, and I found myself always being the only black person in the room. So I wanted to find a way to create that in a microcosm, where we can kind of get into all the issues, which is easier to do at the school level. Some of my favorite movies do that: Election, Fame, Animal House, School Daze. For me, there’s no more effective microcosm. And I started working on the movie in college. As I continued to be the only black person in the room as I left college and progressed in my professional life, it just made the most sense.
On the “hip-hop” (a.k.a., blackface) theme party at the center of the movie:
This is totally true: there was a blackface party in [an earlier draft of] the movie, and I took it out. I just thought, I’m pushing this thing way too far. And then it made national news: UC San Diego had the Compton Cookout incident. And that began my whole rabbit hole research experience where I realized how prevalent the blackface parties were. It was just kind of interesting that, in the Facebook age, they’re bubbling up to the mass culture.
For me, it was just a really truthful but visceral way to kind of recreate the experience of what it feels like to see myself as interpreted through the eyes of a culture that doesn’t know anything about me. Especially when it comes to commercial black culture: the stuff that sells jeans and t-shirts and music and whatever, that is white people actually creating what black culture is in order to sell products. And often that culture is confusing, and it doesn’t represent me, and it’s viscerally offensive. And there’s nothing that quite articulates that feeling like a blackface party of people who, in their minds, are celebrating — I don’t know what they think they’re doing, per say, but it just feels so oppressive to see that imagery. And it was something that happened. To me, as a storyteller, it was the perfect storm of something that really happens and something that perfectly articulates, without words, the feeling that I’m trying to get across in that moment.
On writing a character who could be perceived as an “angry black woman,” especially in light of the Alessandra Stanley New York Times piece on Shonda Rhimes:
What I wanted to do, with Sam’s character, is create someone who authentically had an opinion, a point of view, who then became a spokesperson, and then that identity became too constricting for her. Which I think is ultimately really what that piece failed to understand: a black woman can be many things. Just because she’s passionate and engaged; “angry” is a very lazy way to describe the complexity of Shonda Rhimes. And I think there’s even a line Sam has, she says “I’m tired of being the angry black chick.” She was angry at a certain point in her life, and she communicated that, and now she has to always be that in order to hold up the movement. And that’s what I wanted to talk about with her character.
On relying on arbitrary external signifiers to determine your identity and communicate it to other people, or, why Sam doesn’t want anyone to know she listens to Taylor Swift:
I’ve had that conversation with black friends, these friends of mine who are real black, high up in the black community, black Hollywood, who are thought of as the arbiter of black cool. But secretly, Friends is their favorite show and they’re very reticent to bring that out. I think it’s a survival tactic for anybody, regardless of race, to use that identity that you crafted as a way to come up in the world. I love that stuff. It’s the story of humanity, dating back to the beginnings of culture: that conflict between who we really are and who we think we are. That’s the age-old story. How we present ourselves, all that stuff it’s so interesting and is so well-articulated in this Angela Davis-type figure who secretly loves Taylor Swift. To me, it was a very pop culture way to do that. Because yes, I’ve absolutely had that experience. When I was in middle school, I listened to Green Day and Red Hot Chili Peppers and Alanis Morisette, and it made me so uncool. I had a CD player always sort of hidden. It’s a pressure that you feel. I don’t really feel that way now, but I know people my age and much older who still do.
On black hair and what it means to be “authentically black”:
There’s so many angles to black hair. I remember, [my hair] was never Lionel’s fro, but it was fro-ish. And that line — that it’s a black hole for white people’s fingers — that’s really true. It was like, “Get out of my hair, please!” But there’s also curiosity about hair extensions and weaves. Black hair, whether it’s natural or not natural or whatever, it’s an area that is ripe for microaggression. And identity, absolutely. And because African-Americans feel the pressure of being held to a standard of beauty that’s more European, it’s specific to racial identity. Should you wear your hair natural, or should you straighten it? That becomes a very racially charged decision for people, and it divides us internally… To me, it’s really about being authentic to yourself. There’s a lot of people walking around with fros and natural hairdos, and it has nothing to do with how they see themselves. It’s just as much about chasing a trend as straightening can be. For me, these characters are all battling how to be authentic, not how to be black or authentically black, because that’s fiction. It’s an illusion. There’s no such thing.
On interracial relationships, in the film and in real life:
I think, like any relationship, it’s not just an interracial thing, people tend to exoticize the other and project all sorts of things onto the other. And those relationships are always less successful. In the film, when there’s a real attempt to see the truth of another person, and see past the outward stuff to the heart, those relationships are more successful. But as a black person that has dated and looked for love and all that, I’ve certainly encountered people who are only interested in dating me because I’m black and what that might mean and all the stereotypes that come with that. I’ve been on both sides of that. And I’ve also sort of seen how an interracial relationship can be subject to scrutiny from people within the black community and outside of it. It’s another way to talk about the human condition from a black point of view. Love is hard enough, and it’s all wrapped up in identity, and why not bring that into the mix too? But the degree of success depends upon each character’s willingness to see the truth of another person.
On why there are so many parents and adults in Dear White People even though it’s ostensibly about college kids:
I felt like it would be incomplete [without them]. I think that part of the weight of racial identity, a lot of it comes from the generation before us, because they had to fight so hard, and they had to fight a different fight than I do now. And feeling the pressure to, in some ways, do right by the generation that came before me, and what their vision of success was, that is just as much a part of my black identity as anything. What a black man is supposed to look like and do in the world, that’s a direct response to what my parents had to go through. That was a pressure on me that, frankly, I had to overcome to become the person I am. That’s a lot of what Troy is about. There can be this pressure to be the “right” kind of black person, to be that ten percent that’s working harder than everybody else. And that can be really detrimental and hold you back, even though it’s meant to push you forward. These old battles find their way into the lives of their children. You look at something like Ferguson, and my generation wondering, where are our Martin Luther Kings? Where is the black leader to come and rally and fix our problems for us? We don’t really have that. Because we’re having a conversation that was started by the generation before us, and we don’t have it with the same regularity and intensity so we’re not sure how to have it anymore. It felt necessary.