'Dear White People' Director on Making a Comedy About Race and Spike Lee's Heroism

Justin Simien LAFF - H 2014
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Justin Simien LAFF - H 2014

Justin Simien's movie centers on African-American Ivy League students navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of campus race relations

At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Justin Simien accepted a special jury award for his debut feature Dear White People, an ambitious satirical comedy that questions just how "post-racial" America has become. Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris and Brandon P. Bell star as four black Ivy League college students navigating the often-treacherous waters of contemporary campus race relations.

Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate picked up the film following Sundance, and The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Simien before the film’s Oct. 17 release about the origins of his memorable characters, financing films involving people of color, the techniques of social satire and the inspiration of Spike Lee, whom Simien describes as an "enduring auteur giant."

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Can you describe how your college experience at Chapman University contributed to conceiving the characters and premise that evolved into the script for Dear White People?

I think my time at Chapman was sort of like the seed of the idea. There was really no real black art house [cinema] at that time, that I was aware of anyway. And I really longed for the School Daze and Hollywood Shuffles, and all of that just sort of coalesced in my head with this particular idea to do a multiprotagonist college movie focused on black kids in an otherwise very white environment.

You have a very talented group of collaborators on this film, including executive producer Stephanie Allain, along with producers Julia Lebedev and Effie Brown. As a first-time feature filmmaker producing a satirical comedy focused on race-related issues, was it particularly challenging getting the financing in place to begin production?

Yeah, it was very challenging, but I will say that it was not as bad a situation as is often the case for films — and films certainly about people of color; that’s such an uphill battle. So yeah, it was difficult, but we had the [Dear White People] concept trailer that I'd made on our side, we had this burgeoning fan base on our side. Despite the fact that there was no movie for them to actually see, you had people kind of clamoring for the movie to come out, and that made it slightly easier.

When you’re writing and directing a satire like Dear White People, how do you blend narrative content and social commentary so that they effectively inform one another?

For me, the thing that I always try to do is to decide very early on what it is the movie's about at its core. If a scene that says a bunch of things I want it to say can't hang on the core of the film, then it doesn’t belong there. For me, I felt like the film was really just about the conflict between a person’s identity and their true selves. Everything that happened in a scene has to hang on that conflict and specifically has to hang on that conflict in relation to the arc of the four main characters.

Read more 'Dear White People' Makes Debut at L.A. Film Festival

Describe the visual style of the production, which you’ve referred to as "hyper-reality" — how would you explain that technique and the way it’s incorporated into the film?

Part of me just felt like, if you’re going to do something that's satirical and something that is about a topic like race identity, it has to take place in a different world. You have to lull people into a different place before they're willing to really deal with some of the things that I think the film broaches. I decided that the world of the film was going to be a referential world that let the audience know that they were watching a movie.

Throughout the film, your script gives audiences permission to laugh about sometimes controversial issues concerning race relations, but you’re also clearly interested in sparking conversations as well — how do you strike that balance between comedy and inquiry?

You know, I think anything can be funny if you say it the right way. For whatever reason, whenever I sit down to write I just can’t help but make it funny, I can’t help but crack a joke. I just sort of can’t stomach too much [honesty] for too long in a movie, but also I think, frankly, this kind of subject matter works best in this way. You look at something like Do the Right Thing, and it’s shot like a comic book, and it's so colorful, and it's so fun. And you know, I don’t think that movie would have had the same impact if it wasn't as fun as it is, because you really are dealing with some very, very dark stuff — the killing of a black teenager by a white police officer, which is still a narrative that is very much a part of American culture, unfortunately.

Appropriately enough, Dear White People recalls and references the films of Spike Lee, both creatively and thematically, particularly Do the Right Thing and School Daze. How do you view the artistic legacy of Spike and other key influences on your film?

Spike is really, for me, the only black auteur that we have that is at that level where he’s made films that have really made money and had a huge cultural impact both artistically and financially. He’s kind of the only one that we've got that's endured, endured the test of time. There have been other fantastic black filmmakers and fantastic black films, and everyone’s very excited about Steve McQueen, but right now Spike is kind of the enduring auteur giant. Truly he’s just like a hero, an absolute hero in that regard.

What’s next for you, and where do you see your career going as the film rolls out nationally?

I really believe that there is life in these characters, and I think that perhaps in another medium it would be very exciting to continue their stories and to follow their journeys. I think all the things that the world of Dear White People wanted to say lend themselves to television, and I’m very excited about figuring that out.