Imagine a world in which humorous, sharp conversations about race and identity could be had where multiple perspectives are represented—and many of the participants make good points.
That sort of idyllic communication propels Justin Simien's Dear White People, which won the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent earlier this year at Sundance and opens Friday in theaters. Set at a fictional Ivy League school, the movie focuses on Sam (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio show, Dear White People, expresses her frustrations with campus racial politics ("Dear white people: Please stop touching my hair. Does this look like a petting zoo to you?"). Sam is but one character in the ensemble cast that skewers the identities people take on in the name of assimilation and revolution. It all leads up to a racist Halloween party, and since racist college party season is here, Dear White People couldn't be released at a better time.
I recently spoke with Simien by phone about the movie he wrote and directed. He, like his movie, has so much to say, and I've attempted to include as much of our conversation as possible. Below is a slightly condensed and lightly edited transcript of it.
Gawker: During the scene when Sam talks to her white fuck buddy Gabe (Justin Dobies) about black representation in pop culture, it struck me that this movie is the change it wants to see in the world.
Justin Simien: Thank you for saying that. The first draft of the screenplay had many, many, many characters and someone was asking me today, "How did you whittle them down to the four?" Part of it was: How were they commenting on this struggle between identity and self and the ways in which that affects a person's potential? But also I just wanted to put characters on screen that weren't there. The sort of non-exoticized queer person of color is absent from the cultural conversation. A woman who is complicated and has contradictory motivations, that character is absent from the conversation. A sort of example of the "perfect black male specimen" who felt very uncomfortable in that role, that was just absent from the cultural conversation, but these are the experiences that myself and my friends are having. I definitely got a subversive thrill out of doing things that I wasn't quote-supposed to do in a quote-unquote black film, not only with the characters but with the score and the way we shot the movie, and the sort of style that the movie took.
You name all of those examples. It seems like getting away with one of them would be audacious, but you got away with many in a movie called Dear White People. How?
Multi-protagonist movies are not for everybody, so it's not surprising to me that some people will walk out of the movie feeling like the movie had too much on its mind. But for me, I love these kinds of stories: Nashville, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Do the Right Thing, The Royal Tenenbaums. That's my shit. Those are movies that I love that have so much on their minds.
One of the ways, I think, that you do that as a storyteller that I had to learn, frankly, as I did drafts and drafts and drafts of the screenplay is that you really have to decide that you're going to tell one truth. And everything in the movie is a variation on that theme, and is just kind of shining a light on the different aspects of that one truth. For me, the truth of the relationship between identity and self, that's what I wanted the movie to be about. So even though Lionel's having a black gay experience, Sam is having the experience of outgrowing her revolutionary identity, Coco is having a class experience—they all are somewhere in the battle between identity and self. They're just kind of dealing with the subject from a different point of view. In that way, I can say something more truthful than I could if we just followed Sam or just followed Lionel. This topic, I had too much to say about it than to do it through one person's perspective. I feel like if I had done that, the movie might have felt really preachy, like medicine, like there's only one truth. The idea of identity itself is bigger than that.
I really appreciated that. It reminded me of the pilot of black-ish, too, the way that you'll watch characters debate an issue, and many of them have a point. There isn't necessarily one right answer, "And now let's move on."
One of the intentions behind the movie is even when someone says or does something you don't like, there always has to be a grain of truth in it. Even when someone was doing something that you liked, there had to be a grain of dishonesty in it because that's how life works. Oftentimes, Sam and Coco are both saying something that's profoundly true, but they're saying it in a way that dishonors themselves. You look at pundits on TV and everyone is sort of arguing these very well crafted ideologies and you wonder when they go home, do they even believe this shit? I think that's the interesting thing about identity: Our identities in the world can be incredibly convincing and so truthful and interesting. But if they're not in accord with who we are, then we're in trouble.
You talk about pundits on TV, but if we're talking about the internet and non- or semi-professionals, I think it can be even worse. People have this way of putting things in these extremely stark terms when they're talking to themselves, when I think the truth is a shared experience that differs from person to person. Were you specifically offering an alternative to the—sorry for the pun—black and white way that people discuss race today?
I think so, but part of it was I love the art house movie. When I say "art house," I don't just mean small, independent movies, but also things that strive to say something complicated about the human condition. I love those kinds of movies, and those movies always do that. What those movies rarely do, however, is feature people of color or experiences of living in America as as person of color. So part of it was, that's just the kind of movie I like. I love movies that leave you feeling some kind of way and unsure about where you stand after you watch them. To get a chance to make a movie like that about the black experience, that's just icing on the cake. That's just extra gratification for me.
But yeah, it is unfortunate that movies that deal with race can sometimes get into that preachy thing. Most people know that racism is wrong, and overt racism always is obviously wrong. But yet, even though Do the Right Thing came out in 1989, we still have unarmed black kids dying at the hands of overly aggressive white police officers. We still have blackface parties. We one day celebrate the election of a black president and the next day, members of Congress are literally telling him to go back to Africa, which is the oldest racist thing in the book. I think that we grapple with these things and they are complicated. If we're having a conversation because we have to boil it down, then what's the point of the conversation? It doesn't serve anything.
I wonder if Sam and the activist role that she consciously plays is a satire of people who make their brand social-justice crusading and how ultimately hollow that can ring. Sometimes I'll look at a person's Twitter and say to myself, "You are a charlatan, plainly."
It's a weird truth. All the characters have an uncomfortable truth to present to the audience. On one hand, I'm for all of the things that Sam is trying to do with her movement...
Right! She says so many things that are just plain true. Basically everything she says on the radio that begins, "Dear white people..." is true and funny and it works on that level.
But ultimately, she hasn't taken the time to dissect what she's about. And even though she's saying the truth, she's only being true to literally half of herself. And that is a tragedy. You go back and look at the Civil Rights Era and you had these men like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and you start to dissect their lives. And yes, their message was absolutely one that they were heartfelt about and authentic to, but there was a point in time when Malcolm X was just a puppet for the Nation of Islam. There was a time when Martin Luther King didn't feel like he was deserving of the role he had to play in society because his personal life was kind of a mess. And that's a truth. That's a truth about the life of a person of color, but also anyone who sort of purports to stand for something. That is a truth about the human condition.
Some people walk out of the film feeling rallied, and feeling like they have race politics on their mind, and some people walk out of the film like, "Whoa. Is he saying that I'm doing too much? What's going on?" And that's kinda cool, man, because I hate when I see a movie and it was just good and I go home. I love when I go see a movie and I have got to talk about it because it made me uncomfortable and it made me see something in myself that I never saw before. Those are the movies I loved. That's the movie I tried to make.
Lionel is one of the most nuanced gay characters I've ever seen in a movie. How important was giving depth to that character to you?
The gay black experience is an interesting one. It's my experience, but also what's awkward about it is that there are very few versions of the gay black male experience [in pop culture]. They almost feel mutually exclusive concepts, the way they're presented in the culture. You sort of have effeminate black male characters in sitcoms and cartoons, but they're never gay. Or you have really exoticized gay characters that are evil or lead to ruin or there's an AIDS reveal at the end of the movie. With the exception of the beautiful movie Pariah, very rarely do black, gay, and male exist in the same place in a realistic way. And what that creates is people like Lionel, people like me who grew up not seeing our experiences in the culture and therefore believe that we don't belong anywhere. There was no way for me to say something new about the black experience and not include that perspective. It's just been missing for too long.
Unfortunately, it's one thing that had to be subversively worked into the narrative because if the movie was a quote-unquote black gay movie, oh god. That's box office poison. But it was important for me to have at least some of that perspective in this movie and hopefully prime people who aren't used to seeing that in a quote-unquote black movie.
I think that's partially because identities come with a lot of baggage. In some ways, it's liberating to just pick a side and say this is what you are because then finally you know where you sit in culture. But the truth is, especially for people of color, it can feel constricting to squeeze yourself into yet another box. When you're in a marginalized group, [it's like] why can't I just walk through the world and not have to check a fucking box? Why can't I just have that experience that seems available to other people in the culture and I think that's where Lionel is in the beginning of the film. He doesn't want to check a box because it comes with a bunch of other sub-boxes that maybe he's not ready for or interested in. And also, he's a young person. You have the right to sort of not have a label for your sexuality for as long as you want. You have a right to figure out what you are in real time.
In my point of view, the story has Lionel on a track that leads him from being against any label to really just picking a couple by the end of the film because he's so moved by the world around him. I love that there's never a coming-out scene, per se. He doesn't take that obvious path. If I get a chance to continue the adventures of Lionel, in one form or another—and I'm really hoping that Dear White People finds its way onto TV—I would like to keep him in that place for as long as I can. It's sort of like when you create your own major in college. He has the right to do that. Everyone has the right to do that.
I could relate to Lionel when he's looking at the different groups that he's ostensibly part of and yet feels completely alienated from.
And why is it like that? I think there's more ways for culture to split up and splinter now than there was before, but we're still kind of living in it where, particularly for marginalized groups of people, there's just such limited images. Just in Los Angeles, the different animal names for being a gay man. It's the most exhausting sort of concept ever. What animal group do I fit in and what neighborhood should I be drinking in? It's relentless. I feel like people who aren't in marginalized communities don't really have that problem. They get to be like, "I like science fiction movies, and I like wine, and I like jazz. And that's why I'm at this bar." You can pick and choose your category a little bit more easily.
In the sense that a lot of what Sam says on the radio is correct, the movie's title is straightforward and confrontational. Would you say that you are speaking directly to white people?
No. I think the purpose of a title is to prime the audience for a conversation that's going to be had by the film, or continued by the film. It's sort of the amuse-bouche. It's meant to get your brain sparking. A title, in my opinion, is not meant to encapsulate the whole of a film. It's meant to a), honestly, get you in the theater. It's meant to get your butt in the seat, and unfortunately with a lot of independent black movies, that's an impossible task.
I think the title works for thematic reasons, I think it's saying something about "Is black culture a response to white culture?" I think at the end of the day, though, is what the title does is gets people ready to talk, ready to have an opinion, ready to look at this film critically and with their eyes open and with their mind working. You can't come into a movie called Dear White People to just shut off the day and relax. You come into this movie being told by the title that you're going to have to think about something.
This movie is a pretty clear indictment of reality TV...
Sure, reality is encapsulated in it, but just culture—the interplay of culture and how limiting it is when your identity is fully defined by culture. You have a really smart woman who's almost duped by the demands of the culture for her to be a certain way, to the point where she ends up defending it. I think that's telling a truth. Whether it's reality TV or your Twitter account or your Instagram account or your desire to get reblogged by that person, or picked up on this thing, I think unfortunately it's a reality for people, this temptation to use your identity to get ahead in life or get some attention, even if that somehow goes against who they really are.
The movie discusses assimilating, covering, and pride using terms like "oofta," "nose job," and "one hundred," with "one hundred" being "just black as hell just because." In discussing the complexity and contradictions that live behind identity, this move is as "one hundred" as possible. Showing the non-"one hundred" parts of life makes it more "one hundred" ultimately.
I like that view on it. Someone was asking me, "Which one are you? Are you assimilating with the culture or are you railing against it?" I said, "Well, there is a third option." People in the film are very hesitant to take the option because it's the hardest one, but you could just sort of be yourself. You could just sort of tell the truth and do things that are authentic to yourself, not because you want to rebel against society or assimilate to it. Maybe the point of this experience is to get to a point where we can make choices for our lives that have nothing to do with what the culture expects of us. For me, personally, this movie is a step in that direction.
[Top image via AP]