'Dear White People' Tackles Identity Issues

Filmmaker Justin Simien satirizes the awkwardness of blacks who are not black enough.

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From the film Dear White People

(The Root) -- Justin Simien doesn't mind the possible comparisons to Spike Lee. Since the recent release of the trailer for his film Dear White People, a satire about black students' experience at PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions), many have noted the similarities between its take on race relations and Lee's own joints. (The clip already has more than 600,000 views on YouTube and has raised more than $41,400 on Indiegogo, surpassing its $25,000 fundraising goal.)

But, Simien says, the film is not just about race. "The movie to me is really about what it means to your identity when you are a thing that everyone around you has a preconception about," he explained. "And how that can really limit you, your potential, and in some ways, honestly, help you find yourself."

Simien used his own college years as inspiration, with the first few drafts culled from experiences such as when his suitemate was disappointed that the filmmaker couldn't teach him how to Crip Walk, or how people were obsessed with his hair. He talked with The Root about how Dear White People came to life and how he hopes it will spark much-needed cross-cultural conversations.

The Root: Why do you think it's so important for a movie like yours to be released now?

Justin Simien: We are coming out of this fantasy that we are postracial, and I just think … we have to challenge ourselves a little bit. There are a lot of people in the world who are just comfortable not really considering things from other perspectives. This film, what it hopefully will accomplish … is to put some very new perspectives out there about race and identity. It's important for black film. It's important for film, and it's being talked about in pretty much every format except for film right now. You have it in music, with comedians. You have books coming out about it -- How to Be Black [by Baratunde Thurston], Who's Afraid of Post-Racial Blackness? by Touré.

TR: Race and identity are satirized heavily in the film. Did you take any inspiration from comedians?

TR: What was your character development process like?

JS: There was always [characters like] a Sam, a Coco, a Troy and a Lionel ever since I started writing the script in 2005. It's really hard for me as a writer to really talk about any major topics, such as identity, from one point of view. So, I love ensemble movies -- Do the Right Thing, Election, The Royal Tenenbaums and Insane. Those movies are such an inspiration to me because you see this one thing dissected from all these different points of [view]. Sam, her voice was definitely developed through the Twitter account @DearWhitePeople; that's where I really honed her in a little bit as a funny, Angela-Davis-Malcolm X-Huey-Lisa-Bonet-type of amalgamation [laughs]. The other characters were culled from people I knew and experiences that I had personally.

TR: How has the film changed since you wrote it in 2005?

JS: When I first started writing it, I was fresh out of film school. I don't think I was a strong enough writer to write a script like this. At the time, it was called Two Percent … and it was just a series of episodes. Myself and the other producers all met in writers' groups where I was working on some version of it. That's where we all became friends and decided to do this project together. It really wasn't until two years ago when I felt a sense of urgency about it all of a sudden. We then took it to a workshop and did it with actors -- that was such a profound moment because I think we all heard it for the first time and were like, "Wow, this is the movie, this is a real story and it works."

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