To say that talking with Justin Simien was a master’s class in film and culture theory is understating it. Simien believes that film is the culmination of everything we do as a culture. This is why he invoked Spike Lee, Paddy Chayefsky, George Orwell, and Moliere in our conversation about DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, his bracing look at race relations in these United States. He also spoke eloquently on how the image of the tragic black hero, or the flawless black hero, reflects the culture’s problem with processing a marginal community as just a group of human beings, and why he didn’t want the characters, white and black, in his film to be easily categorized or glibly understood.
We started our conversation on October 17, 2014 with the reason he chose the particular Latin motto that features in the film, and how his own personal sense of the absurd infuses his film.
DEAR WHITE PEOPLE is his bracing and biting satire about race, culture, and class as it plays out at an Ivy League sort of school where self-segregation reigns, money talks, and rivalries become generational. In the midst of this heady brew is Lionel Higgins, a gay black nerd bearing the brunt of the campus’ housing diversification policy that has plopped him into housing that can most generously be described as hostile. As Lionel struggles to find housing that will allow him on its premises, the traditionally black house on campus is going through its own struggles as Troy Fairbanks, the house golden boy finds himself toppled as its head by Samantha White, an agent provocateur with a radio show that challenges its listeners with its aggressive humor. As these characters, and those in their orbit, struggle to reconcile their own sense of identity with what those around them expect them to be, assumptions are challenged, hair is touched, and a campus party inviting participants to discover their inner negro turns into a free-for-all. The film stars Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Brandon P. Bell, Kyle Gallner, Teyonah Parris, and Dennis Haysbert. Simien directed from his own script and this is his debut feature film. I spoke with Simien in a restaurant in San Franicisco’s historic Ferry Building.