'Dear White People' Director Justin Simien Talks Film's Provocative Title

This fall director, Justin Simien will make his feature directorial debut with the release of his comedy-drama, “Dear White People.” The much talked about flick, which stars Dennis Haysbert, Tyler James Williams, and Tessa Thompson, has already generated a significant amount of buzz after winning the prestigious title of Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent and its hilarious trailers that have gone viral.

The thought-provoking satire follows a collective group of college students on a fictional ivy league campus, as they navigate various racially charged experiences. Simien was on hand last weekend for the 39th annual National Association of Black Journalists Convention, where he showcased the film during an advanced screening.

Among the film’s many layered messages, the Los Angeles-based producer and writer explained how he made an attempt to convey the younger generation’s struggle with racism.

“I think it is difficult for the millennial generation to talk about racism, because racism is not as overt as it once was. There really aren’t lynch mobs. Racism, more or less, comes in the form of these little micro-aggressions,” he admitted during a Q&A session immediately following the private screening. “These little suspicions that black people have to carry around with them wherever they go…the people wanting to touch your hair, the people demanding that you defend something that Obama did. And so, racism sort of appears in these subtly, kind of, embedded ways that are harder to detect.”

He also discussed how social media has changed the amount of attention and scrutiny placed on events that have been taking place on college campuses for years.

“I think there’s a sense of paranoia about calling them out at all, because things are much better than there were in ‘Roots.’ And so, it is sort of harder to broach the top. And I think we are in the social media age, and so now these sort-of black face, ghetto themed parties that have been happening forever on college campuses, now they’re starting to hit Facebook. But that wasn’t really happening before. And you really walk away wondering, ‘Was that racist? Am I crazy for thinking that was racist?’ So I do think that it’s challenging.”

Simien continued to explain his creative process during the conversation and revealed the real reason why the film is simply titled, “Dear White People.”

“We can talk about the myth of reverse racism all day, but I think ultimately I’m a black filmmaker making an independent black film. If I called my movie, ‘Ruminations On Race,’ or whatever, nobody would care who I am, or what I have to say or what I’m doing. So yeah, you have to get butts in seats,” he said.

“That is the title’s job, first and foremost. But also think for me, thematically, the title really resonates, because I think a lot of the characters are part of the identity crisis that I’ve had as a person of color like, ‘is all of my identity just a response to mainstream white culture.’ Like is it whether or not I wear my hair straight, kinking, or curly? Isn’t that in some way a ‘Dear White People’? Aren’t I in some way rebelling against or being accused of absorbing too much of white mainstream culture?”

“And to me, I think they’re all sort of struggling with that…and before you see the film, at least you’re talking about it. Because most independent black films don’t have the advantage of other independent films.”

"Dear White People" hits theaters Oct. 17th.



Sundance Film Festival 2014