Dear white people: It’s not OK to throw a black-themed party at which white students wear racist costumes and drink from cups that look like watermelons, especially to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Justin Simien, the writer and director behind the comedy Dear White People, doesn’t have to look far to illustrate how his movie parallels real life.
Dear White People premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival the same week students at Arizona State University were suspended for throwing an offensive MLK Day party. The movie is set at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League school, where some of the white students put on an African-American-themed party complete with blackface, Afro wigs and watermelons. The film centers on four African-American students with very different ideas about being black, and experiences to match.
At my screening of the film, I overheard a white woman say to her friends that she felt “embarrassed” by the actions of the white students in the film. When the credits rolled, Simien plastered the screen with newspaper clippings from actual events to make it clear to anyone who didn’t know that this type of behavior is real. Simien told The Root he’s not trying to embarrass but instead is trying to open a dialogue through his humor.
He wants white filmgoers to know, “It’s not an hour-and-a-half indictment of your people.” Instead it could be taken as a 108-minute indictment of all people, because the black characters are also prejudiced in their own way. From homophobia to hating on Tyler Perry movies, Simien is an equal-opportunity indicter, but by no means in a bad way.
The 30-year-old filmmaker (named to The Root 100 for 2014) started working on Dear White People in 2007 and then ran a successful Indiegogo campaign in 2012 to help with initial funding. He says that some of the inspiration for the script came from his own feelings while attending the predominantly white Chapman University in California after attending a magnet school in Houston.
Like one of the film’s main characters—the gay, gigantic-Afro-wearing Lionel (played by Tyler James Williams)—Simien is trying to fit in. He made his first public announcement about being a gay black man during the Q&A at his Sundance screening, when an audience member applauded the diversity of his characters.
Another of his characters is Sam (Tessa Thompson), the biracial, militant, self-righteous activist who can be heard on her campus radio show saying, “Dear white people, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count.” That character was developed through Simien’s popular Twitter handle @DearWhitePeople. In the film, one white student calls her the pissed-off baby of Spike Lee and Oprah.
Though they had never met in the runup to making the film, Simien was compared to Lee, especially because Lee made School Daze. But it’s a comparison that Simien does not want. Someone once asked Simien if he was the next Spike Lee, and he said, “I’m the next Justin Simien.” But Simien does credit Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle with showing him that it’s possible to make these types of black films. Of Lee he says, “He opened my mind and let me know I could make movies like this … but in Do the Right Thing he talks about how racism works, and in Dear White People what I wanted to talk about is identity.”
Simien says he was also influenced by Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, which can be seen on-screen in the aesthetic and heard in his social-commentary dialogue. He was definitely not influenced by Big Momma’s House or Perry, both of them referenced in Dear White People.
“I don’t have a personal issue with Tyler Perry,” Simien says. He believes that Perry’s success means success for all. Instead, he says, “My issue is with an industry that tells us what we can and can’t be.” Despite the success of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station, Hollywood continues to pump out the same cultural cues about people of color.
Dear White People opens in a limited engagement on Oct. 17 and nationwide on Oct. 24.
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.