Interview: Justin Simien talks “Dear White People.”

Dear White People does a tricky thing. In his feature-length debut, writer/director Justin Simien has a satire that manages to piss off most everyone. All his characters are smart, with sharp, brutal things to say about race in America, yet they’re all hypocrites whose personal choices are in direct conflict with their posturing. Actually, the word “hypocrite” might be unkind: as one of the few black kids who attended a mostly white college, Simien is keenly aware of how identity comes into conflict with identity politics, and his film reflects that. There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), a militant black woman who loves Taylor Swift, yet antagonizes the student body with her radio show about prescriptive behavior for whites. Coco (Teyonah Parris) insinuates herself with privileged white kids by tolerating their swagger-jacking, and hates herself for it. The most alienated character is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a young gay man with a large Afro whose blackness does not match any faction on campus. Dear White People starts with small stakes and big laughs, then pushes the material until all the characters face some sort of reckoning. It is the sort of movie that demands discussion after seeing it, which is why I’m glad I got to talk to Simien about his diverse influences, his own college experience, and the state of black cinema.

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