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There's only one movie this fall—and probably this year, and maybe in the last five years—that strives to merge Spike Lee with Wes Anderson.
"I said to my creative team that this movie is [like] Do the Right Thing and The Royal Tenenbaums had an interracial love-child that went to college," says 31-year-old Justin Simien of his debut film, Dear White People. Centered on a blackface party at a fictional Ivy League school, the thematically ambitious, visually and musically eclectic, clever and cathartic satire is a film nerd's interpretation of the fundamental aspects of the black experience—ones Simien didn't see represented anywhere in the medium dearest to his heart.
Which is not to say that there is a black experience. If there's one thing Simien's "black hipster movie" quickly and repeatedly argues, it's that every African-American individual experiences, interprets, and performs blackness differently, modulating it from situation to situation, sometimes from minute to minute.
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At the mostly white Winchester University, Sam (Tessa Thompson) adopts a perpetually angry stance, delivering "blacker-than-thou propaganda" on her radio show: "Dear white people, the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count." South Side Chicago native Coco (Mad Men's Teyonah Parris) is an economics major determined to find herself a "Gosling" — mostly because she believes herself to be, in the eyes of the few black bachelors at her school, no more than a placeholder for a white woman. Troy (Brandon Bell) seems just what Coco won't allow herself to want: the dean's preppy, Future-Leader-of-America son — except he's secretly relying on drugs to meet his father's expectations of a high-achieving but nonthreatening black man. Most adrift is Lionel (Everybody Hates Chris's Tyler James Williams), the gay, Afro'd aspiring writer who has never felt comfortable in predominantly black settings.
If college is a time to experiment with fresh identities, each of these four can't wait to try on a new one—if they only knew how to get rid of the masks they've come to use as a shield. But they can't help getting caught up in games of competitive blackness with their peers, always feeling the pressure to be "blacker."
"For me, it's the part of the black experience that no one was talking about, particularly in 2005 when I began the script," Simien tells the Voice. "You see moments with Dave Chappelle and maybe Key & Peele—comedians lightly touching on it."
But, he continues, "the black experience that I know has always been about modeling my identity depending on the group of people that I'm around: 'Am I black enough for the black kids?' or 'Am I too black for the white kids?' I really wanted to talk about the ways in which that shapes our potential and, frankly, what we end up doing in the world."
When the Houston-raised Simien was studying writing and directing at the "very white" Chapman University, a Christian college in Orange County, California, a different but related question arose at a Black Student Union event. As he recalls: "We were like, 'Are we friends with these people just because we're all black, or do we genuinely like each other?' Someone said that in jest, and I was like, 'That's hilarious, because the truth is, I don't know!'"
There's much of Simien's personal college experience in Dear White People, but nearly anyone who's experienced campus life will find it familiar, especially the feeling of having outgrown oneself. "I entered school as Lionel, and I left Sam," the director reflects. "I entered not having an identity at all, [but] sort of feeling in the know because I'm black and I'm gay. I had [Lionel's] 'fro! People's fingers were in it all the time." (In the film, Sam intones: "Dear white people, please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?")
"Towards the end of it," Simien says, "I had this black, militant, angry thing going on that frankly wasn't really who I was, either. You know, you live and you learn."
After graduation, Simien paid his rent by working as a PR rep and digital producer while revising his screenplay on nights and weekends. As he delved deeper into his research about blackface parties, he developed a rather compassionate, if counterintuitive, outlook on slathering brown paint on pale faces and donning polyester dreads.
"I think part of it is an innate desire to have a conversation," explains Simien. "When you see this culture — in hip-hop music videos or in television shows — it's a culture that's out of your reach. I won't call it black culture, because it's not black culture; it's hip-hop culture or black popular culture. And that's what I have to believe is the impulse behind these things. It's really from ignorance. When you research these things as I did, there really wasn't a lot of malicious, like, 'I want black people to feel bad.' "