Has Hollywood ever produced a satirical coming of age story featuring 4 black college students struggling to discover themselves while pressured by friends and family? I can’t claim to have seen all of the movies ever made, but I’m guessing ‘no’ is the answer. Justin Simien aims to change that with his upcoming film Dear White People:
“It just so happened that everyone was just as thirsty as I was for this particular type of story. They had the same questions: Why doesn’t the America in the movies look like the America that I live in? Why aren’t the black people in the black films that I go to every award season not having an experience that I can relate to?” Simien told me.
That story follows four students at the fictional Winchester University who each are struggling with different facets of the black American experience. Sam White is a biracial film student who finds herself at the center of a campus protest to repeal the recent housing randomization act that threatens to disband the black dormitory. Troy Fairbanks is the son of the Dean of Students and the archetype for black male perfection who feels completely at odds with the role he was born to play. Lionel Higgins is a solitary sophomore grappling with his homosexuality as he finds himself stuck in no-man’s land between Winchester’s strictly defined social groups. Coco Conners is an aspiring reality star who sports blue contacts and blonde wigs in order to feel more appealing to the popular culture she wants to love her.
Each of them represents a different perspective on the modern black experience and, as a group, they illustrate the different ways in which people of color attempt to fit in the predominantly white world around them. They are all characters that aren’t being represented in mainstream media, despite being more representative of black identity than any sports movie or hip-hop song would have you believe.
“They each were saying something different than the other about the conflict between identity and self, and how that affects one’s potential,” Simien explained. “All four of them allowed me to present people and experiences that I knew were real, that people were having, that just were just missing from the cultural conversation.”
It’s not just that Dear White People is providing a look at a contemporary black experience instead of mining stories of oppression from past eras — it’s also explaining that the conversation about race isn’t a simple two-sided argument. There’s as much tension between the four black protagonists themselves as they grapple with racial politics of their own culture as there is between them and their white peers.
Here’s the trailer:
This looks to be interesting. It will be nice to see a movie that presents the experiences of black people in a more nuanced manner. It will apparently do so whilst being witty, sharp, and incisive.
There are certainly a lot of characters in the intertwining narratives of Dear White People, but the film focuses on four students who must navigate their personal and external perceptions of themselves at the fictional Ivy League school Winchester University: Sam, a college radio host and the result if “Spike Lee and Oprah had some sort of pissed off baby;” Lionel (Tyler James Williams), an “only technically black” gay nerd who who “listens to Mumford and Sons and watches Robert Altman movies;” Troy (Brandon P. Bell), the son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert) who has aspirations that differ from his father’s expectations; and CoCo (Teyonah Parris), an aspiring starlet most sympathetic to insensitive white people. All make up the core characters that set to shatter expectations that Dear White People will speak to the notion of a singular ‘Black Experience’ that gets bandied about in culture. “The idea that the ‘Black Experience’ is one monolithic thing, having to encounter something so ridiculous like that everywhere you go, sort of isthe ‘Black Experience.’ It is my ‘Black Experience’ as well.” He’s also quick to point out that he doesn’t think Dear White People is about racism, per se. “I think that my movie is about identity. And racism is a natural backdrop to any movie about that.”
And while leading off with a Spike Lee comparison may also fall under the same monolithic ‘Black Experience’ trap that he is trying to defy, it’s a comparison he seems to welcome and even invite. In July, Simien introduced Lee’s debut feature She’s Gotta Have It (“One of my favorite films of all time,” he said onstage) at LACMA as part of the Academy’s Spike Lee retrospective, and during our conversation made the comparison between Do The Right Thing and Dear White Peopleunprompted.
It’s not hard to draw a parallel between the two films, superficially. Both are satires about race that lean on almost theatrical humor and drama for effect, and whose cast of characters take paths and make choices that lead them to a singular chaotic climax. Simien cites Lee’s film as an example and inspiration of how to delicately handle a subject as volatile as race. Despite the pointed title of Dear White People and the focus of the film on the militant and outspoken voice of Sam, Simien still does not outright demonize white people or the hegemony of white culture. “I think it wouldn’t be fair if all of the black people were perfect and all of the white people were evil. That doesn’t make sense, that’s not reality. One of the great things about [Do The Right Thing] is that no one does the right thing. Everyone makes understandable human mistakes that leads to its conflict.”
The origins of Dear White People go back to Simien’s own college experience. Originally from Houston, he attended the predominantly white Chapman University in Orange County (62.1% white, 1.7% black according to CollegeData.com), where none of the events that transpire in his film actually happened during his tenure, but the tensions existed for the script. “The point of view and subject matter came from my direct experiences. We had our fair share of conversations on campus about not being heard by the mainstream culture.”
Dear White People hits theaters on 10.17.14