Dear White People’ conveys complexity of contemporary race relations

Colette Greenstein | 10/23/2014, 5:35 a.m.
“Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two.
Dear White People satirizes on the black experience in a “post-racial” society.

“Dear White People, the minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man Tyrone does not count,” is just one of the many funny and sly statements said by campus radio host Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) as she addresses the issue of race on campus and in her own life in the clever film, Dear White People.

Reminiscent of Spike Lee’s School Daze about black college life, Dear White People is a provocative satire on the black experience in a “post-racial” society during the age of Obama. Written, directed and produced by Justin Simien, the film follows a group of African American students (starring a cast of relatively unknown actors) as they navigate campus life at the fictional and predominately white Winchester University, while grappling with race, stereotypes and identity.

These issues are quickly pushed to the forefront when a riot breaks out on campus over an annual Halloween party’s creation of the theme “unleash your inner Negro.”

Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Simien earned a spot on Variety’s annual “10 Directors to Watch” for his feature film debut. Prior to directing the film, Simien worked as a publicist and marketing specialist for Paramount Pictures, Focus Features and Sony Television.

Promoting the film on a nationwide college tour recently, Justin Simien was in town and spoke to the Banner about the making of Dear White People and the black experience.

What was the inspiration for Dear White People?

Justin Simien: Just my life. In particular my senior year in college having gone from the culture shock of leaving Houston, Texas for Orange County where I went to college. I was having these conversations with my other black friends about toggling, and how different we answer the phone depending on who’s calling. And, are we hanging out with this group of friends because we’re black? Are we hanging out with that group of friends…? Why are we keeping them separate? We were just having these really funny conversations and I was wondering, ‘Why aren’t these out there in the culture?’ Why aren’t more people talking about this? This is all of my friends’ black experience but particularly in 2005 and 2006, the latest black TV shows and black movies didn’t really reflect us and what our generation was going through. That’s really where the beginning of it came from and also I just really loved that there was a black art house in the late ‘80s that had reached the mainstream and it had completely evaporated by the time I was in college. I wanted to do something in that vein and that’s really where it came from.

The film is definitely reminiscent of School Daze, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Hollywood Shuffle because they were able to comment on society with humor and they were really clever.

JS: It’s nonexistent in film that you have a black comedy that strives to be satire that strives to be social commentary. We’ll do parodies every once in a while. You’ll have this sort of rom-com thing but something that really strives for the art house sensibility and the art houses — that’s a weird word nowadays — but strives for that sensibility. This is a movie that intended to say something, to leave you with something to talk about in the lobby. It’s very rare to find that about black people, about black characters.