As mentioned previously, for the next wee bit, we’re going to be cross-posting some choice Geekquality blog pieces that we think may be of interest to the Coilhouse readership. First up, this interview with writer/director/producer Justin Simien and producer Lena Waithe about their indie film Dear White People, conducted by Geekquality contributing editor Moxie Munroe earlier this summer. (Thanks again to everybody over there. We <3 you.) ~Mer
MOXIE: I’m completely in love with your project, having seen the trailer on Shadow And Act. What sparked the idea for the project?
JUSTIN SIMIEN: The original idea for the film happened during my senior year at Chapman University. After growing up in Houston, attending the rather diverse High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, college life at a small private college in Orange County was a four year long culture shock. I wanted to comment on my experience and started collecting personal episodes like mitigating the sheer disillusionment in certain White students when I couldn’t teach them how to crypt walk, or when I decided to finally cut my substantial fro, or just in general when I acted differently then the Black people they saw on 106 and Park.
LENA WAITHE: I was first introduced to [the project] in a writers group (which is how Justin and I met). He was writing it as a TV show, but all the themes and the characters were the same, and it had a huge impact on me. I loved his voice and I loved him. Of course we quickly became close friends and I finally read the feature length version of “2%” which is what it was originally called (because the black students at Manchester only made up two percent of the population). And once I read the feature, I was just sold on helping him bring this story to light.
M: As a Black woman and a creative I know I’ve had conversations with folks time and time again, especially in college, that are reminiscent of a lot of moments in the trailer. What was the moment when you all said, “We need to make a movie about this”?
JS: I had been working on the material for a few years, trying it as a TV pilot or an overwritten 265 page feature, which didn’t garner much interest for some strange reason, when I realized that my professional life was mirroring my experiences in college. I was still one of VERY few black faces in most of the places I found myself professionally. Requests to teach friends how to crypt walk were replaced with requests for “Dougie lessons.” I was being confused for the one other Black guy in the office, and the requests to see me with an afro continued unabated, despite my insistence that it was a pain for me to manage and I didn’t really want one.
Also (and more importantly) in the culture there seemed to be a real need for a fresh dialogue about race. The birther movement was gaining momentum, the ugly incidents over a “Black” themed party thrown at UCSD mirrored scenes from the script, and debate over the lack of Black voices in film and tv was happening all around me. That’s when I started the twitter account @DearWhitePeople and working in earnest to get the script to a place where it could be shot as a feature.
LW: I dug [his Twitter] so much that every now and then I would pitch him jokes for it and he would throw them up there. But myself, and one of the other producers Ann Le (who’s been there from the beginning) have been passionate about the film for years. And Justin’s been working on the project for about 7 years. So it’s always been around, I think we just all came to the point where we said it’s either now or never. And thank God, because the timing could not have been better.
M: How has the use of social networking aided in the development of this project? (Big congratulations on meeting and exceeding your IndieGoGo goal, by the way.)
JS: Starting the Twitter account was great because it allowed me to really work out the voice of one of the film’s leads. In the film Samantha White starts a radio show on campus called “Dear White People,” the controversy over which is a driving force for a lot of the plot. Through Twitter I was able to test out material, refine her voice, and gain some insight on the people that were so offended by what they perceived as an accusation of racism they responded to the account with genuinely racist comments.
LW: We’re a generation that lives on the internet. I actually credit Facebook the most because we can send the link to people we aren’t even friends with in a Facebook message, and the people we are friends with have no problem with us posting the link on their wall. When something is shared and posted on Facebook a million times, that’s when you know you’ve struck a nerve. And all the producers started to get all these random friend requests soon after the trailer launched. That’s when we knew folks were sharing it, emailing it, tweeting about, and blogging about it. When the producers would sit down and discuss the strategy to push the trailer we always knew that we would use Facebook and Twitter. That’s the best way to reach OUR audience.
M: There have been conversations about Blackness and the “Black Monolith” and what that means since the dawn of the Huxtable Dynasty (a name I’ve just decided to give the period of time between when The Cosby Show hit it big and Girlfriends went off the air). I know the project is called Dear White People but what do you think of the idea of a cultural Black monolith and “authentic Blackness”, and what sorts of conversations about it are you trying to raise with this project?
JS: To me the film is ultimately about identity and how race identity in particular can be both a gateway to and a huge obstacle for reaching one’s potential. This is compounded by the fact that Black folks and non-Black folks all have very different opinions about what being “authentically Black” actually means.
Each of the main characters are going through an identity crisis with regards to their “blackness” whether its not feeling Black enough for the Black kids, not feeling Black enough for the white kids, or feeling too Black for anyone.
Minorities, along with systemic socio economic disadvantage, have the added pleasure of going through life being pre-defined by everyone according to their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Based on how we define ourselves, some of us find solace in our “ethnic cultures” and some of us feel alienated by it.
Ultimately the role of culture (black or otherwise) as I see it is to help us find our voice and footing in the world. But there also comes a time when to really reach our true potential we have to transcend the cultural and identity cues we’ve come to be defined by. Yes I’ve been watching a lot of OWN.
M: All of your characters seem to be very original, and quite different from each other, yet all of them are also really relatable, both to people of color and universally, which is really refreshing to see. Do you think, with independently produced content on the rise and this age of the webseries, we will see more projects by minorities and see a much needed shift toward more diversity in the mainstream media?
JS: The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Sh*t Black Girls Say, and Sh*T White Girls Say To Black Girls is proof that the internet has made it easier for minority voices to circumvent the usual obstacles of creating and distributing content and connect directly with an audience. Here’s hoping that traditional media, be it films or television, pays attention. Diverse stories in the mainstream seem to be shrinking, creating an even bigger disparity between the demographic make-up of the country and the stories dominating our culture.
LW: I think folks have always wondered when there is one Black success others will follow, and I’ve come to the realization that the work just has to be brilliant. The only way a Black writer/director/actor/producer will be recognized is if the work is amazing and inspired. Not everything out there is great. Justin is extremely gifted. That’s why he has 3 producers behind him (me, Ann Le, and Angel Lopez) because his vision is so amazing. So if Black artists continue to hold themselves to a higher standard then, yes we’ll see a surge.
M: Speaking of White people, the question has to be asked: what do you think the response will be/what do you hope it will be from White communities? I know some White people who are just as excited for the film as I am, but I have also encountered a good many people who have pretty much suggested that I got my PhD in Reverse Racist Studies from Angry Black Lady University for even posting a link to the trailer.
JS: There are some people who have a knee-jerk reaction to the thought they might be accused of racism. Most people who take the time to, I don’t know, watch the trailer seem to understand that this is a film that is meant to explore the topic of race identity as opposed to attack all white people. We have received an overwhelming flow of support from people of ALL races, who not only identify with the themes of the movie, but just want to see a unique and artful story get told.
LW: The white folks have already spoken. They love us. The cool/hipster white folks at least. And lets get this straight, I live in LA so I have a TON of white friends, I would never be a part of something that makes fun of white people for the sake of doing it. This is a satirical look at what it’s like being one of the few black faces at a fictitious predominately white university. It’s tongue-in-cheek and I think most folks get that. And one of our biggest donations ($2,500) came from a white guy. Just the way hip white audiences responded to Dave Chapelle and The Boondocks, I think they’ll respond to this as well.
M: On some more personal notes, I also love the visual aesthetic of the film, everything from the colors to the fashion, and even the choice of typeface is completely on point.
JS: Thank you! The DP of the trailer is Topher Osborn (An African Election) and we worked very hard at coming up with a unique look for the trailer that felt both vintage and modern. Using vintage and in some instances “quaint” aesthetics to articulate something new seems to speak to the spirit of revolution the script tries to embody. The title cards were done by the brilliant Ian O’Phelan whose work is beautiful and subversive, a quality I hope the film has.
And, to keep with our theme here at Geekquality, who is your favorite superhero (if you have one at all), and what movies/TV shows/webseries would you cite as major inspirations (or just personal favorites)?
JS: I have a favorite superhero TEAM, if that’s okay! I’ve been OBSESSED with the X-Men since the early 90’s and to this day read it most nights before bed. I’m sure devouring The Dark Phoenix saga at around age 9 has something to do with my interest in general with ensemble stories that tackle themes from many different points of views.
Speaking of which, Do The Right Thing, School Daze, Election, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fame, and (if you can believe it) 2001: A Space Odyssey have had a profound impact on me as a filmmaker, and certainly on Dear White People.
M: Thanks so much for letting us reach out, I can’t wait to see what other projects you have coming down the line.
JS: THE PLEASURE IS ALL MINE!! Thank you for asking such wonderful and thoughtful questions!
LW: Thanks so much for featuring us!!! We greatly appreciate it.