Dear White People Director Justin Simien on the Multiplicity of Black Experience
Lionel (Tyler James Williams) and classmates: They contain multitudes
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.
See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index
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.' "
But if college kids have the wrong idea about the diversity of Black America, it's because TV and movies continue to project the same stereotypes. "Reality TV is a great example of that," Simien argues. "When a reality-TV producer goes out to cast Character X or Character Y in their show, they are looking for sassy, angry, foul-mouthed black women."
Film is no better, he says. Hollywood itself sanctions blackface in films like Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder and Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, in which "Samuel L. Jackson is in proto-blackface," Simien sighs. "It's still just as difficult to accept — and to watch."
With Dear White People, Simien wanted to offer a throwback to black arthouse films like Do the Right Thing, Hollywood Shuffle, and Love Jones as an alternative to today's "fluffy" rom-coms and heavy dramas dealing with slavery, the civil rights era, or urban decay. (To Simien's cinephilic pride, Dear White People also contains allusions to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon.) "We still have brilliant voices out there," he says, citing Barry Jenkins's Medicine for Melancholy, Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere, and Dee Rees's Pariah, but "it's so few and far between."
He continues: "One of the biggest things that I found taking this movie to studios was that people really responded to it and liked it, [even] saw that it had potential to make money, but because there was no model from the past three years, there was no way to justify it in their financing system.
"These [auteur] movies were making money, so where'd they go? The audience didn't disappear. They just migrated to TV, or to YouTube, because they gave up on seeing themselves in movies. I want to be a part of bringing that back."
Quoting Sam, Simien says, "I'm much more Banksy than Barack. I don't fancy myself an activist, a politician, or someone who wants to pontificate about race relations. I'm a storyteller. I hold a mirror up, but what the world at large does with it, that's beyond my interests and capabilities. I like to come in and blow a little shit up."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.