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.

When you were writing the screenplay, how did you strike a balance between archetypes, stereotypes, and characters?

With a multi-protagonist story, you have to rely on archetypes to a certain degree. You cannot spend the time that you would with a character if you were telling a single protagonist story. My movie is about identity, so I had this subversive thrill out of presenting these hardened archetypes at the beginning of the film, only to dismantle them throughout until we saw their humanity. The film goes out of its way so that you will make a snap judgment about these people, and then proves that judgment wrong.

A lot of characters in the film are posturing, whether it’s positive or destructive. Where do you find the line between the two extremes?

That’s a line that we’re always trying to find because it’s a struggle to reconcile your identity with who you really are. That’s a universal aspect of the human condition. When race or gender or sexual orientation is layered on top of that, it just becomes one in the same. My black experience is walking into a room full of white people or a room full of black people, or even something in between, and then confront their presumptions about me. It’s something we all do: I tried to use this [phenomenon] to my advantage, particularly in the workplace, because it can impressive when I shake their preconceptions.

Why did you choose to set the film at a university? 

I started writing the script in college. The first draft come out in 2006, and it wasn’t about the American experience. It took a lot of experience to get from Two Percent – that was my first title – to Dear White People. It morphed to treat the school as a microcosm for America, one where ambitious black people would want to compete in the highest levels of the culture. I’m a bigger lover of multi-protagonist storytelling and film-making, but the idea of the school as a microcosm was appealing to me. I love Election, Fame, School Daze, and dozens of other similar films.

Where’d you go to college?

I went to Chapman University, a small private school out in Orange County. It’s very white. The school is one thing, but the town is culturally homogeneous.

To what extent did you feel like a token while you were in college?

I remember my first week in school when I had this fight with my blonde, blue-eyed suite mate. He said he was blacker than I was because he could Crip Walk and I couldn’t. After that, lots of people would play with my hair. I felt strange being the only black person in the room, then I felt strange around black people because I wasn’t sure if my blackness was the right kind. My college experience was Lionel’s because I didn’t know where I fit into the cultural scheme in my school.

Lionel mentions Robert Altman. There are other references to Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, and Ingmar Bergman. These characters are well-versed in film, so I’m curious what you think about the state of black film-making nowadays.

I think New Hollywood, which is bit more microscopic than Hollywood in the 1990s, is starting to recognize that black characters can make money. On television, Shonda Rhimes has a whole night now. There are more black movies now in comparison to the years before, but it’s still a bit restrictive because there’s not a ton of room for complexity. You have historically tragic tales of black people, or upwardly mobile, aspirational black people who are falling in love or whatever, rom-com stuff. The stories about the human condition, an art-house slant that feature characters of color, doesn’t exist often. When it does, the movie is tiny and no one knows about it. Movies like Pariah or Medicine for Melancholy are terrific and can be seen through a black lens, but they’re not widely distributed. For whatever reason, popular entertainment rarely reflects how multi-cultural America is right now.

You made me think of Ty Burr, the film critic who noted that the most racially diverse action heroes are in the Fast and the Furious franchise.

That’s totally true! But I can’t wait until we get a Her. I guess we all die off in the future on something.

Wait, are there any black people in Her?

There are no black people in Her [laughs].

You started writing your script in 2006, before Twitter and Instagram. What role you think social media now has in identity politics and self-discovery?

The thing about social media is that it’s all identity, all the time. It’s highly curated, to the point where you hear about people getting depressed on Facebook because they feel they can only post the happiest moments in their lives. From one aspect, social media is great because connections can take place. On the other hand, I’m worried about the next generation because they have social media from the moment they begin to talk, so everyone will soon be beholden to their online identities.

You require your actors to say things that are controversial, even offensive. Did this create any animosity on set, or a moment where you had an actor say, “I don’t want to say this”?

I never had anyone have a problem. Everyone was careful because we walk the line a lot. The characters say one thing, then do something else entirely, and as a filmmaker I never want to endorse one behavior over another. I didn’t want to make a morality play. We certainly had a lot of conversation about the context in which the story would happen, but everyone was pretty gung-ho. Tessa had a scene where her character was bashing Tyler Perry, yet she had worked with Tyler Perry before [laughs].

Did you have time to rehearse?

We rehearsed the big moments, but we had impossibly short prep time. We had two weeks, which is not a lot when you want the art direction to be just so. Still, I managed to have really long talks with all the actors before they got on set.

You mention the art direction, and I wanted to talk about the production values. The cinematography and art direction were striking to me. What look, exactly, were you trying to achieve?

I love movies that admit that they’re movies. You know, the ones that remind you, “Yes, you are watching a movie.” Cinema vérité is great, too, but my bag is the theatricality of cinema. Since we’re dealing with a story about the falseness and limits of identity, we needed to embrace the theatricality of the story world. I wanted it to look familiar, yet distinct from real life. That’s why the school is completely fictional, and all the buildings are named after jazz musicians.  What I told my art department was reductive but true: “I want to look like what would happen if Do the Right Thing and The Royal Tenenbaums had an interracial baby that went to college.” We more or less achieved that. There are also references to cinema, like Barry Lyndon, Persona, and Metropolis. 

Wait, where’s the Persona moment?

There are several [chuckles] because I’m obsessed with that movie. There’s a moment where Troy and Coco are lying in bed, and there are specific shot references there. Persona inspired a lot of how I shot Coco.

What’s the strangest reaction you’ve gotten to the film?

I like to tell this story, and it’s true. There was this white women in her forties, a librarian I think, who kept saying, “I’m Coco. I’m totally Coco.” My reaction was, “I don’t see it, but I find that fascinating.” Younger people tend to show up for the movie more than others, but older folks get something out of it, too, since they catch older references. I think the movie plays differently to a black-centric crowd than a white-centric crowd, but I love it when the crowd is mixed. In New York, it was totally mixed, the reception was so warm, and the questions were so juicy.

What were some of those juicy questions?

I love getting into the “reverse racism” question. It’s loaded, but it’s a good conversation to have. I love talking about Sam, and the choices she makes in the movie since it leaves people feeling conflicted. I love talking about Lionel, especially when I hear from queer people of color. He’s both complex, but his arc is also subtle. Gay folks of color are very exoticized, an idea I wanted to approach with the narrative of the film.

Is there anything you want people to take away from the movie?

I want you to walk away from the movie feeling conflicted about the way you wear your identity. Truthfully, I think the movie takes all the characters to task. It’s talking about identity through this pop culture lens of race politics, but it’s more about identity than it is racism or race politics. I think people will talk about the [climax] and whether certain behavior is OK. I want people to ask, “Who are you? How are the ways that you define yourself holding you back from who you are?” That, to me, would make the film a success.

That’s a perfect place to end. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

No problem. Thanks for the interesting questions.