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We Talked to the Director of 'Dear White People' About Race, Identity, and Black Cinema

After launching scores of think pieces this summer, Dear White People is actually in theaters and it's one of the most thoughtful films about race in a long time. Writer/director Justin Simien chatted with us about his thoughts on a third way in...

by Dave Schilling
Oct 27 2014, 9:00am

Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Dear White People, the debut film from writer/director Justin Simien, has become a talking point for those of us concerned with race matters in America since its Sundance debut in January. It's been out in limited theatrical release for more than a week now, and people are seeing that it's less the controversial screed they expected and more of a nuanced look at how we deal with the racial divisions—both personal and systemic—that plague our culture.

It's a true ensemble piece but focuses primarily on Lionel, a socially awkward, gay budding journalist, and Sam, a biracial activist and aspiring filmmaker—two students caught up in the racial tension at a fictional Ivy League university. Justin and I spoke recently about his work, fitting in, staying true to yourself, and, of course, Tyler Perry.

VICE: What I got from the film is that we’re forced to accept identity, whether we like it or not. You’re born into it. I’m from a biracial family, and I could see my struggle with not knowing where I fit in displayed in every character. Is that where you’re coming from with this, or is that me projecting myself onto the work?
Justin Simien: First of all, you’re welcome to project yourself into it. That’s the fun thing for me about multi-protagonist stories: you can kind of put a few different things out there and have the characters sort of net out in different ways, and have everyone respond to it in a way that makes sense specifically to them. I found it kind of impossible to talk about race identity—or identity at all—from one singular point of view, which is why I have four of them in the film. I think, ultimately, my focus for the movie is that there’s a relationship between identity and self. In America, it’s impossible—at least as far as I have seen—to make maximum use of your potential if you don’t make decisions about your identity.

The idea is that you’re either going to have an identity decided for you or you’re going to have to pick one. I have characters, when you first meet them—Lionel, in particular—who have actively not checked any boxes of identity. [Lionel] doesn’t even have a major. He’s incredibly precious about who he really is and what he’s really about, whatever that might be. Then you have a character like Sam, whose identity is so hardwired that she’s actually denying half of who she is throughout most of the film. So I think it’s certainly not my intention for the film to be a morality play, or terribly dogmatic. I think it’s just to sort of talk about the relationship between identity and self, and to get into the conflict between those ideas and what happens on either side of the extreme.

Tyler James Williams as Lionel. Photo by Ashley Nguyen

Do you think there is that need to not play into what the world wants you to do?
I mean, I don’t take an all-or-nothing view on it. I think it has to be a balance. What’s interesting about your reading of the film is that [Sam]—and I don’t want to give anything away to your readers who may not have seen the film—she makes a decision and it feels like one of those movie moments, but the scene also quickly reminds you of the reality that she’s stepping into, which is bound to be uncomfortable. There will be, probably, social repercussions for the decision that she makes. Whereas Lionel, who I actually think steps into an identity and, at least for the moment, kind of has an uncomplicated, warm reception to his stepping into an identity.

The funny thing is, I actually think the harder thing to do is to be authentic, especially when you’ve had some success as whatever it is that you are. This is coming from a person who has had some success in publicity for some time, before I stepped out to make my own movie and also as a person who I think, especially after this first film, people are going to see me a certain way and expect me to make certain kinds of movies. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if and when I don’t make certain kinds of movies. I think that my personal belief on it is that it’s probably always better to go with your self, if your self and your identity are in conflict. But expect it to be pretty hard. That’s the bleak truth of the matter.

The world kind of knows where it wants you to be, and you either accept it or you don’t.
Yeah, because ultimately you are in control, but to not have any identity at all will also leave you left behind. It’ll just completely leave you out of the conversation about what you can or can’t be. You're sort of at the mercy of others if you make certain non-choices. So at least make the ones that are best for you.

Tessa Thompson as Samantha White. Photo by Ashley Nguyen

People have been talking about this movie a lot, but what I often see in the articles and reviews about it is a need to put you into a box of “this guy is the black Whit Stillman,” or “he’s the black Woody Allen,” or “the black whatever.” Spike Lee had to go through that whole thing, too, when She’s Gotta Have It came out. Does that grate on you? Do you feel like you want to do something similar to what Spike did, where he violently rejected it and basically said, “I’m going to go out and I’m going to make School Daze and you’re going to hate it and I don’t care”?
I don’t have an angry reaction to it. Someone brought up the Spike Lee thing, in particular, saying, “How do you feel about being compared to Spike Lee?” The truth is, it’s great until it’s not great. It’s not great to stay in any kind of box, but if I had to be put in a box, the Spike Lee box is not a bad box. The Woody Allen box is not a bad box.

At the same time, I’m sure at a certain point when I’m not making my first movie and trying to get my second off the ground, I will feel perhaps boxed in. I also think that, you know, Dear White People is a special movie. I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that. There hasn’t been a movie like this in a really long time. So, I’m also excited to see that a lot of the people that I talk to on a one-on-one level are open to me doing things that are totally outside of this particular box, because they see the potential in me as a filmmaker. So, I don’t have a violently negative reaction to it at all. I think it’s a little suspect, comparing me to the other black filmmaker. That kind of thing is a little lazy. At the same time, there are other filmmakers I could’ve been compared to that would not have been favorable at all.

Tessa Thompson and Justin Simien. Photo by Ashley Nguyen

One of those filmmakers might be Tyler Perry, who is referenced in your film. Is he the victim of being put into a box, where he has to make these commercial films that maybe we think of as absurd or silly? And are we giving him too much of a hard time, compared to, say, Adam Sandler—who, by definition of being a white male, is not responsible for holding up the self-esteem of an entire population of people?
Well, I don’t think Tyler Perry is a victim at all. I think Tyler Perry is, of anyone we’re talking about, a master of his own fate. Tyler Perry actually resurrected black movies from what they were, which was really nothing. They were almost completely gone, they weren’t making any money at all, and he came in at a time when—with the exception of a few stars—there really wasn’t a lot going on. He brought with him a ready-made audience from his plays, and he spoke to that audience really well, and he’s done so for a really long time now.

I think Tyler Perry is making the stuff that he wants to make. I mean, he owns an island! If Tyler Perry really wanted to do something different, I think that he would. And I don’t know Tyler Perry and all I have to answer a question about his inner workings is the interviews he gives, but I think he’s happy making his audiences happy. I think the tricky thing is that the gatekeepers—the people who decide what is green-lit and what’s not, and how to promote it and all that—they decide not to investigate any other aspect of the black audience, and they really stopped promoting and supporting work that’s out of the Tyler Perry box. They decided that was the whole of the black experience, and that is all that we would pay to see, and that’s all we were interested in.

After 12 Years a Slave did really well, they were like, “Oh, people are into slavery again? Great!” and I saw all of these stories about the next slave movie and the next slave television series. Hollywood is just interested in making more of whatever made money before. I think really, if we’re going to be frustrated at anything, we have to be frustrated at that particular system. But on the other hand, you talk about someone like Adam Sandler, and the reason why it’s different is because there are so many different variations of a white man in culture. Whereas when it comes to the way black people are presented—even in the “year of black film”—there’s still only a very limited version of the black experience that’s being put out there.

I’ve talked about this often: You more often than not get the tragedy of the black experience; the extreme, tragic pain of being black in this country, whether it’s through the eyes of a slave or a maid or a slain youth. Or you get, sort of, the Ebony cover or Essence cover version of being black, where it’s just fabulous and they’re upwardly mobile, and they’re happy and they’re sassy and have great jobs. The complexity of the black experience is sort of absent from that conversation. That’s why I think it’s easy to sort of pick the one or two players in that field in a given year and attack one or two of them, but I also think that conversation is one that black people are always having. I thought it was worth putting [Tyler Perry] in the movie, because ultimately, the way we feel confined by the culture around us is a part of our experience.

Teyonah Parris as Colandrea Connors. Photo by Ashley Nguyen

Is it hard for black filmmakers—as someone who now is considered a leading light of black film—to feel that responsibility of, “There’s only going to be three of these this year, so mine better be super good!”
I guess so? I guess there definitely is an added pressure when you’re dealing with black subject matter. Not only do you want it to be successful, but you want people to dig it. The truth is that in terms of “black movies”—and I put black movies in air quotes—in terms of movies that are about the experiences of black people or made by black people, there has been so consistently one or two kinds for so long that any attempt to do something other than that, there’s a fear that, “What if people just don’t get it because they haven’t seen anything like it in a really long time?” There’s that fear, too. There’s the same conversation that I think black artists have been having since the Harlem Renaissance, of like, “Is it OK to air the dirty laundry about the black experience?” I mean, if white people are watching this, shouldn’t we always put forth incredibly positive images of black people and successful and happy and beautiful and clean and pretty and intelligent versions of ourselves?

There are lots of pressures. But ultimately, while I think that there is some responsibility to do with representation, my responsibility tends to lean more toward being authentic and saying something truthful, saying something about the human experience, holding the mirror up, challenging… Those are the kinds of films that I want to see. And no matter what the subject of my films are—whether it’s the black experience or not—those are the kinds of movies I have to make. Movies that sort of say something about the human condition.

Just to go back to how we started with identity and whatnot, is there a third way? With my reading of the film, I felt like you were saying there is a third way. You don't have to be incredibly, fiercely protective of your black identity, but you don’t have to completely whitewash yourself. Is there a time—post-Obama—where we won't have to say, “This is a black movie.” We can just say, “This is a movie with black people in it.” Because I feel like we’re still not there. We’re still having these interviews where it’s like, “So you made a black movie.” White people can go see your movie, and they should.
I think the third way is to embrace the contradiction and to show up as yourself. This movie is me showing up as myself, you know? Necessarily, the movie is going to be considered a black film because that’s the paradigm that we’re in. Maybe three films from now, it won’t be, and maybe we’ll see it differently. I don’t know. But at a certain point, it’s not really up to me what the culture decides, how the culture decides to define this film, or film in general. But it is up to me what kinds of things I want to contribute to the culture. This idea of either rebelling against or assimilating into—that dichotomy that those are the only two choices we have—is why we get so stuck and so caught up. This movie wouldn’t have been the same movie if I decided to get caught up in only one of those two. So, this movie for me is a middle way. 

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