Writer-director Justin Simien knew his debut film might be a hard sell, since it was in a mode he wasn’t seeing at all in theaters: a serious arthouse movie about the black experience that wasn’t packed with slapstick comedy or suffering. At the same time, the fact that the market wasn’t packed with carbon copies of the movie he wanted to make gave him an opportunity. Working from his experience as a publicist and marketing specialist for various studios—Paramount, Sony Television, Focus Features—he went for a slow-build version of a viral market, creating the Twitter account @DearWhitePeople, filling it with ascerbic jokes, and slowly developing a dedicated audience. (“The truth is, I was secretly using it as a writing tool,” he says in the film’s production notes. He wanted to “sharpen and refine” the voice of his primary protagonist, Sam White, by seeing what worked for an audience.) Eventually, he invested in making a concept trailer, then took it directly to his audience, with a successful IndieGoGo appeal for seed money to get his Dear White People feature started. Once that money was in hand, he got an indie production company on board and started shooting. Soon, he was at Sundance 2014 winning the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, and turning up on Variety’s 10 Directors To Watch list.
His film has much of the same careful calculation as the long, savvy publicity campaign that made it happen. Dear White People isn’t preachy or divisive. It focuses on four black characters at a prestigious (and fictional) mostly white Ivy League university, and watches them consider how they want to identify themselves. Biracial media student Sam (Tessa Thompson) is torn between her militant campus-radical stance and her personal life, which includes a secret white lover and a taste for white music. Coco (Teyonah Parris) is trying to get onto a reality TV show called Black Face In A White Place, and is testing out personalities that will appeal to the producer. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) wants to write for the campus comedy publication, which isn’t on the agenda of his dean father (Dennis Haysbert), who’s grooming him as the next Obama. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is black, gay, and a journalist, but he’s detached from all these scenes, because of the pretense involved in fitting in. All four characters have their positive and negative sides; like the white characters around them, they’re nuanced people playing out specific stories, rather than broad symbolic types. The Dissolve recently met with Simien in Chicago to talk about the delicate balancing act involved in finding an audience, his Stanley Kubrick fandom and directorial style, and why his provocative teaser commercial doesn’t try to explain the film.
The Dissolve: The question I’ve seen most about Dear White People is, “Who is this movie for?” Which seems to translate to, “Is it making fun of black people, or white people? Is it for us, or them?” How do you go about marketing a movie that’s this complex, to let people know it doesn’t fit either neat checkbox?
Justin Simien: I have a bit of a publicity/marketing background, and when you focus the marketing and publicity on making sure people get specifically what the movie is, you sometimes fail. It’s actually very difficult to translate what a movie is, unless the movie is very simple, or a hero’s journey, or a remake, or something else we’re very familiar with. It’s incredibly difficult in our ADD society—our YouTube, Tumblr, and Instagram culture—to communicate what a movie is in a marketable, “get butts in seats” kind of way. I think what is more effective in this case is to be provocative, and define a hook that gets people talking enough to look at the trailer, clips, and promotional material, or read some reviews. I’d say independent arthouse movies about people of color—small films about this size—do really well at Sundance and do really well with critics, and people find out what the movies are about, and they find them interesting. And then they don’t talk about them, so there is no buzz, and the movie comes and goes, and no one knew it. I’ve seen so many fantastic movies come and go. For me, the title Dear White People works in a number of ways. I love when a title makes you stop and ask questions like, “Is that what that movie’s about? Could that possibly be what that movie’s about?” Because my response to a title like that is to look it up, almost incredulously.
The Dissolve: What’s another title that tripped that trigger for you?
Simien: Do The Right Thing is a good example, because that title is almost like a PSA. “Do the right thing? What’s the right thing? The right thing about what?” It’s a stop. It just makes you take pause. I feel like there’s no way to come into a movie called Dear White People and turn your brain off, or just be entertained. You know this movie is going to challenge you, it’s going to need something from you as well as give something to you. It’s a risk I thought made sense. People who were going to be turned off by the title Dear White People—turned off to where they wouldn’t even watch any of the material—probably would never see the movie. And maybe people who were a little turned off but curious would actually be a great group of people to see the movie. I started [the @DearWhitePeople account] on Twitter during one draft of the script, and what I found more often than not was that black people and white people equally got it. Black people got it because it’s just a phrase that’s common in their world. And white people got it because they’re open to the experiences of other people. There was a core group of people who I knew would get it. And a group of black people who would be like, “Why are you making a movie about our experiences for white people?”, but they might still be open to seeing it. And a group of white people who would be a little turned off, but curious, and they would come see it. And everybody else… [Laughs.] You know. If I called the movie Two Percent, which it was originally called, I really feel like I would not be in Chicago right now on a press tour for this film. I just don’t think so. Movies like this don’t get national ad campaigns. They need word of mouth, and they need word of mouth before anyone’s seen it. [Laughs.] For me, the risk has been worth it. It’s been proven to be worth it.
The Dissolve: You’ve been called an “equal-opportunity indicter,” but the film doesn’t feel like it indicts people at all.
Simien: I don’t think it does.
The Dissolve: It’s sympathetic to everyone. Even its worst villain has a few mitigating factors.
Simien: I think it attempts to hold the mirror up. When a film purports to present human beings onscreen, it has to admit that there’s good and bad. In the film cycle, awards season comes, and we have a dozen or so films that attempt to show the human condition, because the studios want to win awards, and that’s what gets people awards. And in those movies, you see these complicated, interesting characters. They’re usually male, and they’re always white. Everyone else is just not part of the cycle of film when we talk about the human condition. It’s saying something, subtly. It’s just you’re absent from a conversation about the human condition. I’m only this marginalized, exoticized thing. I can’t be complicated and interesting because I’m not a white man. For me, it was very important to not do something dogmatic or easy. I wanted to do something complicated and human that casts these characters in a way that’s human and messy, and has you leaving the theater not sure how you felt about the decisions, they made. Because those are the movies I love.
The Dissolve: Variety said you’re basically presenting a lot of complicated questions, and that the great thing about the movie is that you don’t pretend to have answers. Do you have your own personal answers to any of these identity questions, even if you left them out of the film so it wouldn’t be didactic?
Simien: The only thing I’ll say is that in the war between identity vs. self, which is what I think the movie is about, honestly, self has to win out. Life is hell if you’re just an identity, if you’re stuck in what other people expect you to be, and you have no sense of yourself—or you do and you can’t express it. That’s true in the characters, but I think what’s also true is that if you’re so beholden and precious to the self that you are reticent to choose an identity, then sometimes culture will leave you behind, and that is also painful. I think identity has to be informed by your sense of self, but I think even that is too big a discussion. That’s sort of like the whole of religion up until this point has been trying to describe that particular balance, that dance. I do think that when the characters in my movie are being more authentic to who they are, they tend to feel a little bit better, and that’s probably as close to a moral as the movie gets.
The Dissolve: One thing I haven’t seen so much in the conversation about this film is the degree to which it’s not just about racial identity. There are major threads about fathers and sons, about how women compete with each other, about gay identity and a forming a coming-out story. Have the other kinds of identity been noticed to the degree you might want?
Simien: I don’t think so. But I also understand it. My favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick, and one of the things that’s so interesting about his films—I’m not personally casting my films among his, let’s get that straight. [Laughs.] But one of the things I always thought was interesting is that he made these very complicated, hard-to-digest movies, and the marketers would come up with these publicity campaigns that focused on a hook, and that’s all anyone would talk about. Eventually, people caught up to what the film was actually about. And that will probably be the case with this film. I think the race politics that are on the mind of the movie, that are on the lips of the characters, are a necessary part of selling the story and getting audiences interested and coming in, and for the movie to find its place in the zeitgeist. But eventually, I’d love for people to just see it as a story about identity, and see all the ways in which I’m talking about it, and the ways we define ourselves.
Like you said, each of the characters have other layers, besides being black, at play in their particular identity stories. I think once the dialogue and the jokes and the meme-y nature of the title wears off, like maybe on the second or third viewing—I wanted to a make a movie that got better the more you saw it, by the way—then I think people will be able to see the other stuff there. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than watching the same movie again like a year later, and another year later, and always getting something new from it. I watch Eyes Wide Shut every Christmas. It’s a weird Christmas tradition that I have, that no one shares with me, but that movie never stops becoming more interesting to me. I wanted to craft something that was layered enough to give that experience to people.
The Dissolve: There’s a serious, Kubrickian formality and coldness to Dear White People. The sets and costumes are very precise, the performances are pronounced and formal, you’re using classical music to give it this elevated, mannered calm. Do you think that’s your voice as a filmmaker, or is it just the way you wanted to tell this one particular story?
Simien: I think it’s hard to say what my voice as a filmmaker will be, because some of it is unconscious. Like a person’s taste level, who’s to say what went into that? I think over the course of several films, I will discover what kind of filmmaker I am. [Laughs.] But I’m drawn to movies that admit they’re movies. I’m drawn to a formal theatrical presentation, because when movies present themselves in that way, they present themselves as movies you have to think about. Cinéma vérité is a very visceral style of filmmaking where you’re just emotionally pulled into the story. I love those films too, but I really love movies that are presentational. It gives you a little of distance, so you’re not just emotionally involved with the character. You’re aware that you’re watching a film, and the film is aware that you’re watching a film, and you’re able to think about some of the ideas in the film on a conscious level. Whereas I feel emotion is very subconscious, and also very powerful. I feel like I will have a story in me that will need to be told that way, but this story wasn’t one of those. I think it’s probably true that that might always be part of my thing, but I can’t say for sure.
“I’m drawn to movies that admit they’re movies.”
The Dissolve: Speaking of that awareness of being in a movie, you’re being compared to Spike Lee pretty regularly, and you’ve said in a few interviews that it’s kind of a lazy comparison. For me, the most Spike Lee part of the movie is the moment where they’re talking directly to the camera, standing at a box office yelling about Tyler Perry movies. That feels like the end of School Daze, but I’ve read that it’s a direct visual quote from Metropolis.
Simien: It’s so funny that you say that. There’s a hand gesture they do at the end of that sequence where they go, “Oh man!” That is a direct wink to a scene from Do The Right Thing. But visually, it is a quote from Metropolis. It’s from the dance of the dead sequence. I saw a lot of parallels between [Dear White People protagonist] Sam White and Maria [in Metropolis], who is this sort of figurehead for the oppressed people who’s being used by the oppressors to control them. And Sam was a person whose identity at some point isn’t her own. So I made a connection between those two characters, and whenever Sam is onscreen, I felt this need to sort of cast her as Maria into these visual quotes.
The Dissolve: Are there other Easter eggs cinephiles should watch for in the film?
Simien: There’s a Persona visual quote that no one has asked me about, and I think it’s like the most obvious one. People have picked up on Barry Lyndon, Do The Right Thing—there’s a Warriors moment when Sam’s at the mic. There’s sort of a parallel visual moment that’s very brief, but no one’s asked me about the Persona one in the scene where Troy and Coco are having a conversation, after certain events happen that I don’t want give away. [Laughs.] To me, Coco’s story was all about Persona. I saw such a connection between her storyline and that film.
The Dissolve: I found Coco particularly fascinating because she’s trying to take such a strong stance, remaking herself for reality TV and pushing herself on a producer who isn’t convinced—but Teyonah Parris plays her as so brittle and fragile, she comes across as heartbreaking instead of manipulative. What was your direction like with her?
Simien: We had a lot of conversations about “Who is Coco, really?” Like, “Who is she underneath this show she’s putting on? What motivated her to create this particular persona that we meet her at? What motivates her to put on all these different masks throughout the film?” Coco to me is the one character who’s actively playing the game. Everyone else is caught in the game, or resisting the game. Coco is actively like, “Oh, that’s the version of me you’d like to see? Well then, here it goes.” I feels like there’s no way to do that as a human being without breaking a little bit.
It’s like my brief experience doing interviews: When you’re tired, you still have to be full of life, that sort of thing. It wears so much. If I made it my business to do that all the time, I think it would be even more of a burden, more of a strain. I see really intelligent people do it for fame, particularly in a society where it is a lot easier to be famous. If you’re just part of the right niche, or you live in the right neighborhood and you’re interesting enough, you could probably get on somebody’s reality show. I think it’s very interesting when very educated, smart people make the compromises necessary to fit in that box. I can’t imagine that it’s something that sits on them well, and we talked a lot about that. We talked about specific reality stars, and what we think might be going on with them. Yeah, we wanted to say something about that.
The Dissolve: You’ve said there are autobiographical threads in Dear White People related to your experience of going from a mixed-race magnet school to a virtually all-white college. But are there other autobiographical touches in what the film says about relationships, or families?
Simien: Yeah, a lot of the anecdotal stuff. There’s a lot of autobiography in that, particularly the bridge scene between Sam and Gabe. It’s the sense of feeling wrong because your parent looks different than you. That’s something I experienced. And the sense of having to pick a side is something that’s been articulated to me not only by my mother, but by other bi-racial women. There were women older than Sam talking about how when they were that age, they felt they had to make a decision. Lionel an easy parallel to me, because I’m a gay black man who’s sort of found myself in neither place. But there’s a lot of me in Sam too, and her sense of otherness. I think my way of dealing with that feeling of otherness is different than Sam’s, but the motivations are very much similar.