Justin Simien’s debut feature, Dear White People, has been one of the most buzzed about films in Park City, earning the Sundance Festival's Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent at Saturday's awards ceremony. A fan favorite from the start for not shying away from the taboo, the feature film grew from a concept trailer that was eventually funded partially by the crowd-sourcing platform IndieGogo.
Set at the fictional Ivy-League-like Winchester University, this multi-protagonist tale centers on Sam White (Tessa Thompson), a biracial student with a radio show that puts Caucasian folks on notice for racist, other-izing behavior. (Gems include: "Dear white people: stop touching my hair;" "Dear white people: knowing Lil Wayne lyrics doesn’t make you an honorary black person, it just reminds me you say n***a;" and "Dear white people: stop dancing.")
When Sam is elected to a predominantly black residence hall reminiscent of Harvard’s social clubs, her protests become increasingly militant as she navigates the politics of backwards administrators, radical black students and ignorant white kids. Her struggles are mirrored in the other characters: the straight-edged son of dean Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), the outsider journalist Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) and fame-seeking Coco Conner (Teyonah Parris). When one of the clubs throws a racist costume party – inspired by actual racist parties at actual colleges – the event becomes a lightening rod for race relations on campus.
Rolling Stone spoke with Simien about Monday’s Arizona State frat party, dubbed the "MLK Black Party," his own radicalism, and Miley Cyrus’ place in the conversation.
Have you read the news of the Arizona State MLK day party where students dressed up in basketball jerseys?
Of course, it happened right after we premiered here, which is crazy. It’s literally from the movie. I tried not to overly vilify the students, because in researching these parties, and they happen all the time, very rarely was there malicious intent behind it. It was most often people that didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t think anything of it. Black culture really was just what they saw on TV and it didn’t dawn on them that there were actual people who were black and having a real human experience that might be offended by that.
Why do these parties keep happening?
I think part of it is a response to the fact that we are in a weird time. The millennial generation, for whatever that word is worth, it is the first time they are growing up in a world where there is a black president and black artists in entertainment are crossing over to mass audiences, and black culture really is a commodity. You also have black folks that haven’t grown up in major cities, that maybe haven’t encountered overt racism, and maybe there is this assumption that there is no more racism, and racism doesn’t exist, and we can just don these things as Halloween masks. I’d like to believe that’s where it comes from. I don’t want to believe in my heart these kids in Arizona wanted to make me feel bad or shit on this holiday.
How do you change it?
I don’t know. I do believe that racism is institutional and the more and more we pretend like racism only comes in the form of blackface parties or something that a politician says, we are not paying attention to the real issue. Because the truth is, it is systemic. The system is set up to put people of color at a disadvantage, the same way it is set up to put women at a disadvantage.
Have you been surprised by the response to the film?
I don’t know what I thought would happen, but I braced myself for negative responses just because the title is a little controversial. People have a knee jerk reaction to the title. The point of the film is to sort of challenge people and in the middle of being challenged by a movie, you don’t know what that reaction is going to be.
Did you get a sense that anyone felt attacked?
I did have a conversation where this woman was just like, I feel so bad, I touch people’s hair because I love them, you know, I just didn’t know. I know there are going to be a few people that feel some kind of way but the truth is, what’s the point of telling these types of stories if they don’t push some buttons? So I take it as a badge of honor if some people feel too challenged by it.
Where do you see yourself in terms of these characters?
I’m in all of them. I think Lionel and Sam tend to be the two extremes of my personality. At one end, I don’t want to be defined by anything, and sometimes that makes me feel like an outsider, but at the same time I get very passionate and riled up in my identity and what it represents and can have very political and militant feelings.
What do you think of artists like Miley Cyrus appropriating black culture?
I don’t have a problem with it, but us pretending like it’s not a thing that a white artist does the exact same thing black artists have been doing, and it pops more when they do it – us pretending like that’s not a truth in our culture is a mistake. But I love Justin Timberlake. I actually really love the Justin Bieber R&B album.
The main character Sam says the term African American is racist. Do you agree?
No, I don’t think it’s racist, and Sam is not a mouthpiece for me. What I think is racist is black people have a harder time getting a job.