Dear White People: Interview with Director Justin Simien
Zon D’Amour: If you’re an African American student attending a predominately white institution and you experience racism, should you transfer to a HBCU (Historically Black College and University)? How do you decide if it should be your fight to try and re-educate and desensitize your racists peers?
(Justin Simien) JS: Sam (played by Tessa Thompson) is leading a pro-black movement on the campus. She decided to attend Winchester University. The school is a microcosm for the larger African American experience. If you’re a person of color and you have ambition you may face similar experiences. In the real world, you’re going to be working with and competing against people that don’t really look like you.
That’s why it was important to me to show Sam’s resilience because she wants to be the best. She wants to be educated at the best school and she has ambition beyond her situation as a person of color on this college campus. Sam wants to be a filmmaker and an artist, who reaps the benefits of attending an Ivy League and she also wants to use her voice to make the world a little bit better. Sam has all of these competing motivations and that’s what makes the experience that I explore in this film different from what I’ve ever seen before.
ZD: How was the experience having so many Caucasian actors in black face for the party scene? Were there any learning lessons?
JS: Those poor extras hardly knew what they were getting into and most of them were very conflicted about dawning those images but I think they understood it was serving a purpose in the context of what we were doing in the film. Everyone was very respectful and believed in the story.
A profound moment onset was with Teyonah Parris who plays Coco. For the party scene she lightens her complexion with makeup, wears blue contacts and a blond wig. Teyonah had to stop looking at herself in the mirror, as she was getting ready because it really broke her heart that some women feel as if they have to cover themselves up in order to be accepted. It was very powerful shooting that scene because Teyonah couldn’t look at herself in the mirror in wardrobe, if she did she would break into tears. She had such a visceral reaction to that scene.
ZD: Your film has been heavily compared to films like Do The Right Thing and School Daze, both of which are over twenty years old. How can we lessen racial tensions and make more progression through the arts?
JS: We need more films from our perspective where our stories are being told. The tricky part is that racism is more covert than ever. What happens is there’s a great success in the black culture and it allows people to stop worrying about other issues. When President Obama was elected, many people thought having a black man in the White House, means everything has been figured out and of course that’s not the case. In actuality that makes it harder because people are able to point to President Obama as an excuse to ignore the other problems that still exist.
We can’t really deal with our issues unless people are willing to see stories about those who feel like they’re the ‘other’ in this country. Unfortunately African American culture isn’t really represented in our tv and film. As a filmmaker, its my job to tell the stories that hold the mirror up and reflect what’s really going on in our society.
ZD: Did you ever doubt the film was going to get made?
JS: There were many times where I thought the movie might not get made. I was in a constant state of anxiety about the film even after the success of the Indie Gogo campaign. It was about deciding that I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer and really getting clear about my intentions. I’m not in the game because I want to make money from it, be famous or cause controversy; I simply needed to tell this story. I couldn’t sleep at night without getting it done. That’s the kind of drive and passion you have to have as a filmmaker. You have to get out of the mentality that it’s up to someone else to make it happen. Because every time someone else said “no”, I had to keep pushing forward and not wait for permission. Eventually we found the right collaborator and the right financier for the project but it definitely took some time.
ZD: Can you explain the dichotomy of Sam’s character who’s a biracial, pro-black host of the films “Dear White People” radio show. She’s secretly having a relationship with a white teacher assistant and they can’t be public because it conflicts with her image?
JS: I wanted to get into the contradictions of the black experience. Oftentimes in a black movie the character has to be “authentically black” and “down” and they have to “keep it real”.
Sometimes we can be so busy keeping it real that we deny the parts of ourselves that don’t fit into that mold.
I wanted to get into the complexities of the biracial experience as it’s oftentimes not really dealt with. In tv and film you’ll have light skin people of color and they’re just presented as objects of the narrative but the complexities of their existence are hardly ever dealt with and it’s real. You’re in the middle of two worlds and you don’t fit seamlessly into either and you have to make a decision about which one you should pick that’s something that my mother faced and many friends of my have experienced. They’ve had to question, how they’re going to present themselves to the world. I wanted to get into the complicated nuance of when your identities sort of outgrow you and have more control over your life than you do. I wanted to tell that truth which is often not told.