Rising director: “Dear White People”

“Dear White People” opens nationwide Oct. 24. Special to the Oracle

Samantha “Sam” White hosts a radio show at the prestigious Winchester University.

She begins each and every broadcast with, “Dear white people, the minimum number of black friends required to not seem racist has just been raised to two – ” or something to that effect.

While addressed specifically to the majority of Winchester’s student body, the message is received by all and causes quite a stir. Sam is an anarchist, and she is just one of the four main characters at the heart of Justin Simien’s award-winning film “Dear White People.”

The film will open in select theaters Friday and nationwide Oct. 24.

“It was a combination of having lots of conversations with my friends – particularly while I was in college – just about the experience we were having, being black at a mostly-white school,” said Simien, the writer and director of “Dear White People.” “That, combined with my love for the sort of films that came out of the black art-house, particularly in the late 80s, early 90s, and wanting to do something that was cocky, had ideas on its mind and was quirky and specific. It really was just a combination of all those desires.”

Simien wrote the first draft of “Dear White People” while studying film at Chapman University in Orange County, California. He said that the film was originally going to be called “2%.”

“At this point I’d say that a lot of the autobiographical stuff is probably well hidden in the plot of the film,” Simien said. “The first draft was certainly closer to my life experience, but as I worked on the screenplay, it evolved and things needed to happen to serve the narrative and serve the arcs of the characters better. I drew a lot from research and a lot from headlines and things that were going on in the nation and folded that into the story.”

Prior to making the film, Simien started a Twitter account called “Dear White People” to see how people would react. He said that when the jokes got people across the board talking, the name just stuck.

“The title came from the voice of Sam White; it was sort of like a running joke,” Simien said. “I remember saying something about the ‘Single Ladies’ dance, which at that point had been appropriated by everybody. [Sam] had a radio show but the radio show didn’t have any focus and it just occurred to me … what if that was her thing, just these open letters to white people that were sort of funny and tongue in cheek and meant to provoke, meant to cause conversations, meant to stir people up.”

The film is raw and satirical and serves as a letter to the media, and society as a whole. While a lot of the jokes are presented in a flippant, offhand manner, at their center there is an unavoidable truth.

“The movie’s about identity and the horror of seeing yourself represented by a group that has nothing to do with you,” Simien said.
The film tackles the uncomfortable subject of racism in modern America in a way that doesn’t alienate audience members, but invites them to join the conversation and initiate change.

“I wanted the film to take place in a hyper reality and for the film to admit that it’s a film, right from the very beginning, and for you to feel like, ‘OK, I’m in a fictional world,’” Simien said. “I think that makes it easier to talk about things that may be a little more hot button.”

He said that while the film has received overwhelming support from audiences so far, it has also garnered a few critics and seems to invoke a knee-jerk reaction, mainly from those who have yet to watch it.

“We certainly have a troll community that follows us, and every time we post something or do something, they come to try to destroy it, which is the point of the movie in my opinion,” Simien said. “The idea that a person can try to assert the experience of a marginalized community and is met with that level of viciousness from people who haven’t seen the film is proof of what the minority experience is like in this country.”

“Dear White People” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent.

“It was exhilarating to premiere at a festival where, frankly, people were very unsure about how it would play,” Simien said. “For it to be received so beautifully there and to be awarded there was a very exhilarating and vindicating experience.”

Simien said that the success of this movie depends on people actually going out and paying to see it and not just liking it on Facebook, blogging or tweeting about it.

“These movies come and go,” he said. “I know that there’s a lot of buzz for the project, but I think that if people are enthusiastic about what the film represents, in terms of representation of different points of views in movies – in representation in different types of stories, in different kinds of faces making their way into the cinema mainstream – then they need to support the film opening week. That actually could have a profound impact on the movies we see and will see next year.”