Interview with Justin Simien: The Brilliant and Creative Mind Behind ‘Dear White People’

Alyssa Audrey Taylor ‘17/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Justin Simien on the set of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Nguyen/Roadside Attractions.
Justin Simien on the set of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Nguyen/Roadside Attractions.

Justin Simien is the director, writer and producer of Dear White People, a smart, funny, and important look at some of the most pressing questions of race and identity. The film revolves around Black students at a predominantly white Ivy league college, and the issues surrounding race and an African American themed party that is thrown at the school by white students. A week before the film’s limited release, I sat down for a an amazing one-on-one interview about the film, race, and reality.

How did you come up with the idea for this movie?

It’s sort of like, I was in college. I was like a senior in college and I was having conversations with friends…I had a friend named Justin, he was like the straight version of me [laughs] and we were both in the Black student union and kinda talking about, isn’t it funny that we have all these Black friends, and we have all these white friends, and we don’t hang out with them together. Are we friends with these guys cause we’re Black, and why do we talk differently, and we were having this conversation about our Black experience, and we were all having this Black experience but this conversation wasn’t being had in the culture, it wasn’t on TV, it wasn’t on film, and the stuff the stuff that was supposed to be the Black experience on film was so strange and foreign to me. It was like the Madea stuff, which was speaking to a very specific set of the Black community but Hollywood assumed was all of us. And that combined with the fact that I just loved when Black people made arthouse movies and it made money like Do The Right Thing and Love Jones, they made money and they’re about the complexities of our experiences, and it just clicked in my head: I have to make those types of movies, just with the conversations we’re having now. And that, that was 2006, that was when I first started drafting the screenplay and slowly but surely got it to a place where it became Dear White People.

Okay, so each character in the movie has a distinct and separate voice, and it’s interesting because we all know a Sam type person or a reggie, and we all know a Coco [laughter]. So were these characters easy for you to write and were they based on real life people?

The first versions of these characters were very different than the movie now, which is interesting because there was always a Coco and there was always a Sam, but they were very very different. When I started the screenplay they were very close to real life people, but through the years and when you’re writing a screenplay and rework the narrative, I’m inspired by research I’m doing, and conversations I’m having, and books I’m reading, they definitely changed. Sam is probably the exact same, Coco changed a lot. But the basics of their identity crisis was always the same. Lionel was always trying to struggle with being Black and gay, Coco was always trying to struggle with trying to elevate her class level, or lower it depending on the situation. Troy was always in the shadow of his parents. But the way they spoke and the way and  they wore themselves to the world, that did change a bit. But they started off being based on real people and became their own people. And Sam, I don’t know where she came from she was in the back of my head the whole time and she wanted to speak and she did.

I know a Sam, I know a couple of them. So this is a fun question. Was Coco named after Kelly Rowland because her name’s Kelendria [Coco’s real name is Colandrea Connors in the film] and I don’t even know if you know, but that’s Kelly’s real name!

Oh, I did know that because I’m from Houston, Texas and Beyonce went to my high school, so I did know that but it was not intentional Kelly Rowland thing, but I obviously grew up with a lot of Black people and I’m in the Hollywood industry so i know a lot of people that changed their ethnic sounding names to something more vaguely European, and it was a funny way to talk about that, to immediately insert an identity crisis with a subtitle and you immediately know what’s going on, so it was a funny interesting character quirk of hers.

Tyler James Williams and the cast of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Nguyen/Roadside Attractions.
Tyler James Williams and the cast of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Nguyen/Roadside Attractions.

I thought that was funny, where it said Coco and crossed out Colandrea, that was brilliant. So, I’m Black, and trans, I mean I’m clearly Black, but I really appreciated the character of Lionel. One, how important was it for him to be in the script, and be in the script as not only Black, but Black and gay and then have to deal with the editor who likes him, but really only likes him because he’s Black?

Right, right. I mean, that was partially my experience, and I felt like that aspect of the Black experience was completely missing. And since I started writing the movie, Pariah came out, but that’s it [sighs]. The movie’s all about the weight of the identities that are sort of imposed upon us.Ya know, if you’re a Black person, or trans or a woman or whatever it is, you have to walk through the world constantly having to bob and weave through what other people imagine about you. And that is so frustrating, because as a Black man, it’s mutually exclusive to be a Black man and gay, or like trans or whatever and that’s nowhere in the culture, and if it is in the culture, nine times out of ten there’s a very negative connotation. And so you start to feel like you can’t walk through the world being your fully integrated self, you have to be a version of yourself depending on who you’re with and it’s like a purgatory, it’s like a personal purgatory and I thought it was like, a lot of people were having that experience, and it was completely absent from the conversation. So for me there was no better way really to talk about identity, and there was no way I could talk about Black identity without having a character like him in the film.

Yeah I really appreciated how he was in the film and how he had these negative thoughts already about being around the Black kids because he was gay, because I know that struggle so well, and I know so many people , who are gonna appreciate those scenes when they see them. Also, Sam’s character, I know you said you don’t know where she came from, but her experiences and her struggles with being biracial, and her identity and being that strong powerful Black woman who’s also categorized as being bitter and angry, and also has this Black guy who’s attracted to her but she’s attracted to this white guy, and she’s struggling with her identity…I really appreciated that, and if you could talk about writing her?

Sam really came out of my subconscious, and I was writing herm and I had a great love for Huey from The Boondocks and Dap from School Dayz and Malcolm X from Malcolm X, these characters from pseudo militant, type A, Black nationalistic personalities, it was just a character type that was ingrained in my head. But also, my mother is Creole and [that’s how] I grew up, and I didn’t come from an interracial family I guess, but Creole is all kinds of stuff, and people totally look at us weird. My mother looks Puerto Rican, people don’t really know what she is, so walking around holding my mother’s hand I felt that. I felt that I was odd or that we were odd, and she explained to me growing up in the south, she grew up in southern Louisiana, that she couldn’t be white, couldn’t pass as white, people knew she was Black, her mother worked in other people’s houses, that was a thing, so like she wasn’t totally accepted in the Black community either because she was so light, and she felt pressure to make a choice and be loud about it. “I am an African American.” And that’s an interesting struggle, it’s interesting again that the presumptions of other people force us to make declarations about who we are, and that’s the story she [Sam] tells Gabe, about being interracial, about holding her father’s had as a kid and the complicated feelings that that engendered in her, that came out of like a therapy session, I didn’t even remember having that feeling as a kid, and that suddenly came to me in this moment and I was like “oh my god”, that really, profoundly shaped who I am. And, she kinda… something in me needed to give birth to that character, certainly. I think she’s like an amalgamation of a lot of things in my life.

I definitely, like I connected with that speech so much, and I mean, just like you, I didn’t come from an interracial family, but I’m of mixed heritage, like my mom is way lighter skinned than me, and my grandfather I thought was white for a long while, but like he’s part white, and like-

Yeah, I felt the same way, I had no concept of Blackness at all, because all of the Black people in my family were every possible shade of human being, every possible shade. We had people in our family looking Asian, looking latino, people looking as Black as like they were straight from Africa. It was real. And so for me it was like, oh, cool, people. I didn’t have any awareness that I was Black, and oh I’m different from people until like 5th grade.

I loved Coco’s like, angry monologue towards the end of the movie, actually I also liked the complexities of her and Troy, because we all know a lot of Troys. I appreciated the whole interaction between Troy and his father, because I feel like a lot of Black people, especially Black males feel pressure from their families to go to certain colleges, and [the conversation that goes] “You’re doing this, or we’re not paying for school”, and I loved Coco’s monologue, where she’s trying so hard to elevate herself, and it’s funny, I don’t think I realized until that moment, I mean I kinda got it with the YouTube Video, but I didn’t realize how aware she was of how everyone viewed her. And it’s really because she’s played as a foil to Sam, and legitimately her and Sam are two sides of the same coin.

Yeah, totally. In fact, there was a scene that I had to cut for time, but there’s a scene between the two of them, where she [Coco] says “You look down on me, but you’re Blacking it up for them [the Blacks], and I’m Blacking it up for them [the whites], and what’s the difference between the two of us?” And Troy and Lionel, too, both feel the pressure of what they’re expected to be but they’ve reacted to that pressure in different ways. And, yeah, for them, that scene is a really complicated, dirty truth scene, there’s a few scenes that for me were like “let’s tell some dirty truth”. And Coco is both saying something that is true to defend an action that she feels ashamed about, I think Coco feels ashamed of what she’s done in that moment because of Sam, and she’s trying to defend it, and what these kids have done is indefensible, but Coco feels ashamed about what she’s done; it’s just a very complicated scene and it’s just a situation that frankly, that it’s so interesting, for instance, whenever I see a Black reality TV star and I’m not going to name any names in particular, because there are a few of them, that they’re unaware of the fact that they were literally sought out because of how they portray themselves, and they were edited and scripted in a certain way, that frankly, demeans other people in the race, and then they defend their actions on this television show. And they defend it as if it’s their life mission, but they have no idea that they’re reinforcing stereotypes. For the rest of us, and they’re defending actions that cut them down. And that’s such an interesting phenomenon in our society, and I wanted to try and explore that in some small way.

Tessa Thompson and Justin Simien on the set of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Nguyen/Roadside Attractions.
Tessa Thompson and Justin Simien on the set of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Ashley Nguyen/Roadside Attractions.

I also think that the reality show aspect when they were trying to cast, and Sam who was like “white people are buying and selling these images” and in the last scene where the President is like “how much?”, I really liked that. I grew up with/ in the reality TV genre, and I know that it’s bad, I’m aware of the fact that they’re demeaning the race and yet we still buy into it… I love Love and Hip Hop.

[Laughs] That I can’t get into, but I do like the Real Housewives.

Mhm, I love me some Real Housewives of Atlanta, they’re coming back soon.

And I watch stuff, and and it’s true, there’s a great documentary, Miss Representation, that talks about how girls want to be president until age six, and because they’re saturated with images in the media, they want to be housewives. We oftentimes do not realize just how powerful cultural images are, and aren’t aware of how they’ve shaped us. And as someone with a partial addiction to reality television, and I talk about this in the Dear White People book, ya know, we’ve got to put our awareness cap on and realize this is not reality, this is a scripted program, this is not representative of anyone. If anything it’s a representative of television executives and what they think people want to watch.

I’ve heard a lot of people, like girls on Bad Girls Club, talk about “oh that’s not how stuff went down, those fights happened, but that’s not what set it off.”

Yeah it’s all reshot, it’s complete fiction.

What was this party scene like, writing it, directing it and watching it, because I watched the movie by myself earlier today, and I was so mad and uncomfortable during that scene, and I was really mad because there was nobody else in that room to be like “what the f—.”

[Laughs] Good, I’m glad, that was the correct response. It takes audiences through the visceral feeling of what it’s like when you are projected back to yourself, from a group of people who have no contact with you. And honestly, that’s what I feel like, say, when I watch a Black television show that clearly has an all white writing staff, or a Black character, or sometimes reality TV, where there’s no Black person involved in the making of this, can’t be, because this is so not me, but it’s being reflected back as if it is me. I wanted to put people through that visceral experience, and unfortunately, the Blackface party is a phenomenon on college campuses, and ya know, there was just no better way in my head to do that. And so, I wrote the scene, and I tried to put everyone’s fingers on it, I tried to make everyone responsible for it, because it wasn’t about moralizing, and it wasn’t about white people do this, it wasn’t about that. But I wanted to lead everyone to that experience, because that experience to me is a very visceral way of saying what the movie’s about, which is “What do you feel like when you’re told what your identity is?” And you know, it’s a very oppressive feeling, and that was the only way I could articulate that through a narrative.

Right, and I think it’s interesting because there are a lot of people who feel like they’re not oppressed, and they’re gonna watch that scene and realize it, and I feel like people who are oppressed, and know it… I feel like people are gonna leave that scene and be mad as hell and they should be.

They should be! The thing is, the oppression is covert and we’re not aware of it, it affects us all in ways that we have to deal with, and if you wake up stuck in the denial stage, aggrieving racism, you don’t wanna believe that it’s real, or sexism or whatever the case may be, if you’re stuck in denial, you’re never going to fully actualize as a human being. And you’ve  got to be aware of how the world around you has affected what you haven’t become. That’s really important to acknowledge that.

Tessa Thompson and the cast of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions.
Tessa Thompson and the cast of Dear White People. Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions.

I also appreciated what you said about everyone’s hands being in it, because that scene where they ask Sam if she did it, and she says it doesn’t matter who sent the invitation, because it should’ve been stopped when they went to the invitation was sent.

Yeah, nobody should’ve went to the party. That should’ve been the response.

My last question is, how do you feel? You are officially a voice for the young people. Like, I don’t think you understand. The Black kids in Boston, and who go to Emerson, who I know all over, Black people all over are excited to go see this movie, and I know all of us who are teenagers, and are seeing all that’s going on now, like with Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin… I know that, a lot of my friends are artists, and a lot of us feel that you’re our voice. How do you feel about that?

I haven’t…I have to let it in at some point, you know it’s so surreal to me. I did this because I wanted something out there that reflected me and to feel that I’ve made something that reflects other people is so gratifying. It’s wonderful and in the moment, I’m still catching up to it, to be honest with you. And also my head is on the future, you know we have so much work to do, like honestly, like so much depends upon the movie doing well in the eyes of the industry, it really is true that you only get what worked last year and the fact that we broke through, and got the movie made, and got it in theaters despite the fact that there’s been nothing else like it for a really long time, is a pretty rare, rare moment, and if we don’t support the film in the box office, like it’s not going to happen again. And the artists coming up after me, I have friends who are writing scripts and they’re amazing and if we do well, that script is getting made by a studio for millions of dollars, and if we don’t do well, you’re screwed, I’m so sorry. But that really is the reality. I would say that I’m very touched by it, and I hope that if it’s as meaningful to people as you say it is, then we gotta show up for this movie, not because I made it, not because I stand to earn any profit by it, cause I really don’t, but like, because, like I wanna see more. I don’t want to make the movies just because I wanna see them. Like, I want you and your generation to make the movies that I go and see. I want to see myself in a way I never saw myself before.

Thank you so much for the interview, and thank you so much for the movie, it’s wonderful. Going to a predominantly white college, I understood all of these characters so much, so thank you.

Thank you so much, I appreciate it! and I love your fingernail polish. [Laughs]

Dear White People opens nationwide October 24.


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