Justin Simien has big aspirations for his first feature film “Dear White People.”
“I hope it breaks the mold for movies with casts of color,” says the writer, producer and director of the movie, which opens Friday after winning awards at this year’s Sundance and San Francisco International film festivals.
Simien calls the film, a funny and provocative satire which follows four black students at a fictional, primarily white university “a situational autobiography” of his life – being a guy who didn’t quite fit in either black or white communities.
Originally, Simien, an avid film fan who admires Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini and Robert Altman, had seven characters in mind for the film, but decided to whittle it down upon realizing, “It would be difficult to find money to make a black ‘Nashville.’”
Yet funding ultimately wasn’t a huge issue for Simien, who initially raised $50,000 via crowd-sourcing after gaining notoriety with a Twitter feed he packed with provocative remarks such as, “Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has been raised … to two.”
Some of those comments end up in the movie, in a provocative radio show called “Dear White People” run by activist Samantha, one the film’s protagonists. Other main characters include Coco, a woman who has no problem assimilating into white culture; Troy, a by-the-book student leader whose father is the university dean; and Lionel, a gay science-fiction geek and aspiring journalist who covers black culture for the student newspaper.
“Lionel is easiest for me to relate to,” admits Simien, who grew up in Houston and studied film at Chapman University in Southern California; he also did publicity for Hollywood movies at Paramount Pictures.
With a goal to avoid stereotypes and create nuanced characters, Simien, in his early 30s, mentions some of his movie’s witty, unexpected details, such as the fact that the setting, Winchester University, is named after a gun that famously killed American Indians, and that the soundtrack features classical music, not hip-hop. Directly inspired by great independent filmmakers such as Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, Simien says, “I miss the black smarthouse.”
IF YOU GO
Dear White People
Starring: Tyler James Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon P Bell
Written and directed by: Justin Simien
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes