'Dear White People' Tackles Identity Issues
Filmmaker Justin Simien satirizes the awkwardness of blacks who are not black enough.
JS: Dave Chappelle is one of the first people to break through and have this really major crossover appeal commenting about the black experience. Donald Glover, who I'm just a tremendous fan of, who's on Community, has a rap persona as well. His commentary about being a black nerd is something that was inspiring. Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, too, was just a huge inspiration. It was funny, extreme satire and … it just went there unapologetically. You know, Martin Luther King waking up [from a coma] and being call a socialist was the most ridiculous, amazing piece of television [laughs].
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."
Jade O. Earle is an editorial intern at The Root.