“Why Doesn’t the America in Movies Look Like the America I Live In?”: Director Justin Simien on ‘Dear White People’ and Real Black Narratives on Film

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Here’s a film pitch: A coming-of-age story about four college students coming to grips with their true identities despite peer pressure and parental influence, that culminates in a wild Halloween party gone awry. Sounds simple enough, right? It’s basically the premise of Superbad. What if the four students were black, though, and that Halloween party was actually a race party thrown by a group of white students attending the same university? Listen to the crickets chirp.

That’s the sound Justin Simien heard when he initially approached studios with the script for his first feature film, Dear White People. Even though studio executives loved what they read, no one was willing to take the risk. So Simien took matters into his own hands. He cashed in his tax refund check and made a concept trailer for the film that became a viral success.

“It just so happened that everyone was just as thirsty as I was for this particular type of story. They had the same questions: Why doesn’t the America in the movies look like the America that I live in? Why aren’t the black people in the black films that I go to every award season not having an experience that I can relate to?” Simien told me.

That story follows four students at the fictional Winchester University who each are struggling with different facets of the black American experience. Sam White is a biracial film student who finds herself at the center of a campus protest to repeal the recent housing randomization act that threatens to disband the black dormitory. Troy Fairbanks is the son of the Dean of Students and the archetype for black male perfection who feels completely at odds with the role he was born to play. Lionel Higgins is a solitary sophomore grappling with his homosexuality as he finds himself stuck in no-man’s land between Winchester’s strictly defined social groups. Coco Conners is an aspiring reality star who sports blue contacts and blonde wigs in order to feel more appealing to the popular culture she wants to love her.

Each of them represents a different perspective on the modern black experience and, as a group, they illustrate the different ways in which people of color attempt to fit in the predominantly white world around them. They are all characters that aren’t being represented in mainstream media, despite being more representative of black identity than any sports movie or hip-hop song would have you believe.

“They each were saying something different than the other about the conflict between identity and self, and how that affects one’s potential,” Simien explained. “All four of them allowed me to present people and experiences that I knew were real, that people were having, that just were just missing from the cultural conversation.”

It’s not just that Dear White People is providing a look at a contemporary black experience instead of mining stories of oppression from past eras — it’s also explaining that the conversation about race isn’t a simple two-sided argument. There’s as much tension between the four black protagonists themselves as they grapple with racial politics of their own culture as there is between them and their white peers.

Troy’s opposition to Sam is not just that they are both running to be head of Armstrong Parker House (the black dorm), it’s that Troy chooses to assimilate to the system of oppression that Sam and the Black Student Union are trying to break down. He’s dating the university president’s daughter while striving to make it onto the staff of Winchester’s humor magazine, Pastiche the poster child for “acting white” to fit in according to his peers when, in reality, Troy is simply trying to figure out his own path.

Meanwhile, Sam fields the criticism that her campaign is overcompensation for the fact she’s biracial instead of black. When Coco is speaking to Troy about all of the trouble on campus that Sam has stirred up, she says with a laugh, “and she was light-skinned too.” In one sentence, Coco sums up the racial hierarchy among black women and registers her indignation that Sam has it easier just because her skin is a lighter shade of brown. And Lionel, well, you try and name another young, gay, black man who’s won mainstream acceptance besides Frank Ocean (who chooses not to give himself the “gay” label). We’ll wait, because Lionel is still waiting too.

By dissecting these issues, Dear White People sets itself apart from even the contemporary black narratives we’ve recently seen on film. Fruitvale Station validates itself because it’s a true story. However, Oscar’s story still hinges on the mass-media image of the young black man in trouble with the law, despite the film’s humanizing portrayal. The same image is addressed in Dear White People, when Troy confesses to occasionally smoking weed and his father responds resolutely, “Do not give them the satisfaction of being what they think you are.”

As Sam and her friends wonder in front of a movie theater halfway through Dear White People, “How come the only black movies Hollywood wants to make are black mammies in fat suits or black women in pain? So basically you’ve got black people dying in the past and black people dying in the present.” Case in point: even in lighthearted comedies like Best Man Holiday, the lead female character dies of cancer at the end as a plot device to bring the group back together.

From its story to its dialogue, Dear White People resists such easy choices. “Even when a white character says something in the film that’s despicable or perhaps that you don’t agree with, it was important to at least slide a grain of truth into what they are saying. It’s true President Obama benefited from Affirmative Action. It is true that sometimes as black people we tend to take a victim mentality and only see the experience of being black as the ways in which we were persecuted against.” Simien said. “It was important for me to be honest about how complicated this stuff really is. If we’re not talking about it the way it really is then we aren’t having a productive conversation.”

Dear White People also makes the bold point that racism in 2014 looks nothing like racism from the 1960s or slavery era America. You won’t see any Confederate flags or KKK homages at Winchester University, just as you wouldn’t see them at any real prestigious higher education institution. The black students at Winchester aren’t rallying against blatant oppression, but rather a more sinister and invisible barrier — ignorance and white privilege.

“That’s what racism looks like now. It’s covert. Most people are not intentionally racist. Even these kids who we will see come Halloween throwing blackface parties, etc. — they’re not trying to make black people feel bad. Some people just think they are above the conversation of race because we have a black President now,” Simien continued.

The dangers of that unchecked privilege are not only addressed with the race party that serves as the climax as the film, but also with intermittent quips from Sam White via her campus radio show, which shares the title of the film. For the most part, the interjections — such as, “The minimum requirement for black friends necessary to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man Tyrone does not count” — are used to make racial commentary in a comical light. However, those thinking that Dear White People is a PSA purely for white audiences are mistaken. Simien is also prompting people of color to reevaluate their role in the conversation.

Dear White People is a commentary on the need for black culture to always be in response to white culture — because it is most of the time. Even if it feels authentic and hood and all of that, it’s a response,” Simien said. “The intention was always to hold a mirror up and tell a dirty truth, even if the truth was uncomfortable.”

Of course, when you have a film with such an incendiary title, there’s always a worry that people will react before they stop to think about the message before them. “Every time I walk into a screening I’m convinced this is going to be the time that they riot,” Simien admitted, “but, I think that means that I’m probably doing something right.”