TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")
TESSA THOMPSON: (As Sam White) Dear white people, the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.
GROSS: The new film "Dear White People" is a satire about race relations and racial identity set on a fictional Ivy League campus. My guest is the writer and director of the film, Justin Simeon. The character we just heard Sam, Samantha White, is the host of a campus radio show called Dear White People. She's also the newly elected head of the black students residence hall. In this scene, she's in the hall's dining room talking with the former head of the residence and some other black students about whether they still face a lot of racism. Later in the conversation, you'll hear them interrupted by a white student who's the editor of the campus humor magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DEAR WHITE PEOPLE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I really don't see the issue. Never had one. Never ran into any lynch mobs.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Lynch mob's still here. It just rebranded itself.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) As what (unintelligible)?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The Republican Party.
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) You want to know how the world sees you? You go to a Young Republican's meeting and bring up welfare.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Or immigration.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Or gay rights.
KYLE GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) Bull[bleep].
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You have something to add?
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) Me? Yeah I do. Look - you're biggest athletes, right? Movie stars - hell, guys, the president is black - OK sometimes I think the hardest thing to be in the American workforce right now is an educated white guy.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) You're not serious.
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) Hey look, you guys still got affirmative action. That's all I'm saying.
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) I'm sorry. What exactly are you doing here?
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) All right. Check this out. You ready? Obama, right? Leader of the free world. He gets into Harvard based on - you. Too late. Affirmative action. You know who's not president right now? No? That guy who didn't get in.
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) Well, on behalf of all the colored folks in the room, let me apologize to all the better qualified white students whose place we're taking up.
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) No, it's fine. We're OK.
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) I'm sorry. Did you get lost? (Unintelligible) that's way.
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) Oh, I know where it is. I'm actually supposed to eat there. Yeah. It's just there's - this is the only dining hall that you can actually get yourself some chicken and waffles.
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) Look, you're Dear White People right? It's funny. It's funny stuff. It really is. How have we not staff you yet?
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) Oh, me? Oh, what? On Pastiche, your uninspired humor magazine?
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) It's actually much more than just a magazine, sweetheart. "SNL" staff is basically half -Lampoon half-Pastiche. Same goes for the network comedies.
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) And what gives you clubhouse kids the right to come to our dining hall? You don't live here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Sam, what are you doing?
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) So you can't eat here.
BRANDON BELL: (As Troy Fairbanks) Chill, Sam. Damn all right. Let the man...
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) Got this.
GALLNER: (As Kurt Fletcher) We got this. Look, who are you to throw me out?
THOMPSON: (As Sam White) Well, I think I'm head of this house. And I'm doing things my way.
GROSS: "Dear White People" is Justin Simeon's first film. He tested out some of the ideas and jokes by opening a Twitter account called @dearwhitepeople and tweeting the kinds of funny, intentionally provocative statements Sam makes on her radio show. To help get the film produced, he first made a trailer and used it to attract funders. The trailer went viral and helped him raise a lot of money through crowd-sourcing. When the film premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, it won a special jury award for breakthrough talent. Justin Simeon, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JUSTIN SIMIEN: Thank you. So good to be here.
GROSS: So before you had your movie, you were doing @dearwhitepeople tweets. So give us a sampling of what some of those tweets were.
SIMIEN: Oh, God. Let me see. I think the first one was - dear white people the "Single Ladies" dance is dead. Leave it alone - or something to that effect. I just remembered sort of being overwhelmed by the ways in which (laughter) that particular facet of black culture have been appropriated and sort of run into the ground. There were both critical and so of, you know, complementary. But they were all sort of intended to kind of quietly refine the voice of Sam White, you know. I have been working on the screenplay for some years at that point and wanted a way to sort of test out her very specific brand of humor on the world at large and see how it would react. And, you know, both positive and negative. The sort of feedback - this instant feedback you get from Twitter really went right into the screenplay and how I sort of developed her and - and sort of thought about what would happen to her in that world.
GROSS: Did you have any white friends who were offended by the @dearwhitepeople tweets?
SIMIEN: I didn't. At least they never said it me (laughter). You know, I was working in publicity at the time, and I'm very used to being a black face in a white place. And none of my beautiful, wonderful, encouraging, white friends ever had a problem with any of it. In fact, you know, we had - had a table read very early on in the process with some friends of mine and, you know, the film is - got four major black characters. But, you know - a lot of the sort of other characters are white in the film. And so we sat there as friends and as performers and writers and actors and had a conversation about it. And when I saw that, you know, everyone in the room was moved in the same exact kind of way and was having the same conversation about identity and potential, that's when I felt like, wow, OK. So even though this movie is through my very decidedly black point of view, it's speaking to a human experience.
GROSS: One of the central parts of "Dear White People," the movie, has to do with a Halloween costume party, and the theme is unleash your inner negro. I want to describe the party in the film.
SIMIEN: Well, the idea is that - you know, kind of as a response to Sam's show, Dear White People. They sort of turn, you know, any sort of internalized white guilt or shame on its head in this invite. And, you know, basically it's this invite to all the white people on campus who, you know, feel like they are constantly being accused of accidental racism. It invites them to unleash their inner negro and, quote-unquote, "celebrate black culture" by - you know, coming dressed as gangsters and pimps and, you know, really bad and kind of trite hip-hop stereotypes basically. And essentially these kids, there's some debate over who in fact actually sent out the invite. But nevertheless, these kids sort of show up, you know, going all out in the name of irony or celebration or whatever - what have you. And, you know, they're wearing, you know, Lil' Kim wigs and dressed, some of them, in blackface. And, you know, for me, it was a way to sort of kind of give a visceral sense of what it feels like - as a person of color to see myself kind of through a lens from, you know, perhaps white culture, white media that actually has no real contact with me (laughter) and my culture, to kind of - kind of like, you know, give any audience the visceral horror of seeing something like that. And also using something that happens on college campuses all the time amongst very smart, liberal, otherwise socially intelligent people.
GROSS: Yeah, I was surprised to find out - 'cause I didn't know about this - that there actually are parties like this where white people come dressed as, you know, what they think an African-American would be. Do you know?
GROSS: And it ends up being, like, stereotyped images of African-Americans from popular culture. So where have parties like this taken place? And what do you know about those parties? Did you ever go to one? I mean, do you have friends who went to one?
SIMIEN: You know, when I was coming up in college, there was never anything that sort of egregious that happened. But there were coded parties, you know. There were the pimps and the hoes parties. And, you know, there were some very questionable.
GROSS: Wait, wait, what's a pimp-and-ho party?
GROSS: I mean.
SIMIEN: Pimps and hoes party (laughter)?
SIMIEN: You kind of come dressed as a pimp or a ho (laughter). That's sort of the general theme. But it's really - it's the coded way of coming as a black stereotype - I mean, just to keep it real. There's a lot of Snoop Doggs up in the room, you know, at such an event and...
GROSS: And white people or black people go to this party?
SIMIEN: I've only experienced it, you know, in really, like, groups of white people, you know. But there's also on the other end of the spectrum. There's also white trash parties. And there's also some very questionable Cinco de Mayo parties that went down during my college experience.
GROSS: No, but tell me about those parties.
SIMIEN: Well, just, you know, it's sort of the same thing except it's Mexican stereotypes. And there's just a lot of - you know, interestingly placed mustaches and sombreros that I just feel like if an actual Latino were in the room, they might take offense to. You know, and this is the sort of thing that kind of happens, I found anyway, with sort of closed loop - sort of closed cultural loops of people, you know, in some way want to interact with some sphere of culture. But they don't have any actual friends or people in their lives that are sort of representatives of that culture and can easily say, hey, this is super offensive, don't do it. You know, for me, I was writing this as a satire, and I had such a party written in the screenplay. And I took it out because I thought I was doing way too much. I thought I was sort of like encroaching upon like Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" territory, and I felt like, you know, if this isn't something that really happens then, you know, maybe I should just take it out.
Then I think about a month later, it happened at UC San Diego. They threw a Compton cookout party. I believe it might've been - I believe it was in response to Black History Month. You know, it was a fraternity that threw the party, and these kids came dressed as gangsters. And some of them were wearing blackface, and there was this huge backlash on the campus from the black students and other students who just thought it was horrible. And it was this interesting conversation happening in real life that was sort of touching upon everything my movie was touching upon. So I decided to put the party back in and do some research and found all kinds of examples of it happening. I believe it happened at Dartmouth the week we started shooting. You know, there's sort of a history of these things happening.
GROSS: Your movie's set in an Ivy League college. Tell us about the college you went to.
SIMIEN: I went to a lovely school called Chapman University, a private school in Orange County, California, with an excellent film program and for whatever reason a desire to give me money to go there, which was a huge factor in my choosing it. But also it was close to LA, and, you know, I was from Houston, Texas. I recognized early on that I wanted to be in film. And it ended up being a very interesting experience 'cause the education was excellent. But I also had a huge culture shock coming from Houston, Texas, from a very diverse sort of group of friends who, you know, part of the country that is - it's not terribly diverse, Orange County. And for me, it was a cultural shock that - it was from that cultural shock really that the beginnings of "Dear White People" kind of started to percolate in my brain and, you know, slowly but surely find their ways into the mouths of characters and, you know, storyline.
GROSS: What was the difference between the racial makeup of the community you were from and the high school you went to compared to, you know, the racial makeup of the college that you went to?
SIMIEN: Sure, well, you know, I lived in a mostly black - I would say all-black neighborhood in Houston, Texas. But I was part of the magnet program. So I was shipped to, you know, different schools sort of outside of my district, so I found myself constantly as a kid kind of between all-black worlds and mostly white worlds and my middle school was probably mostly Latino. And by the time I got to high school, I went to the High School for the Performing of Visual Arts in Houston, HSPVA. And it was - it was like a Benetton ad. There were just people of every possible race, sexual orientation, gender identity. You know, it was bunch of artists - art kids, and so to go from there to, you know, certainly the film - I would say the film program which is the part of my college, I had the most interaction with was fairly diverse and pulled kids from all over the country. There was a group of kids at the school who really - obviously had not had a lot of time with black people in real life, you know. I tell the story of my suite mate sort of insisting that he was blacker than me - as a blonde, blue-eyed kid insisting that he was blacker than me 'cause he could crip walk and I couldn't and had no interest in doing such things. You know, I remembered this sort of crestfallen look on some of my friends' faces when they realized that I - despite being tall and black, I had actually no sports abilities whatsoever.
SIMIEN: You know, and just that sort of thing. People sort of being very surprised by (laughter) me both being black and sort of nothing like the black people they were used to on TV.
GROSS: So it.
SIMIEN: That was consistently my college experience. And also, you know, I didn't - I never really looked like the black people on TV. Like, my finger waves were never right. My hairline was - I never had the best haircut, the right fade, the right genes, the right - I just never - I couldn't - try as hard as I could - I could never sort of fit whatever the image of, you know, the popular culture image of a black man was. And, you know, being gay didn't really help with that either.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Justin Simien. He's the writer and director of the new satirical film "Dear White People." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Justin Simien, and he's the writer and director of the new satirical film "Dear White People," which is set on an Ivy League college campus. And it's about racial issues on that campus.
So there's a character named Sam - a young woman named Sam - who is like the more militant character in the movie. She's the one who insists that the residence hall should remain African-American and not diversify. She's the one who does the Dear White People broadcast, and she's just angry. And a lot of that anger is directed at white people. She's also, we learn later, biracial. And I'm wondering if you put that in because you feel like you've seen things that felt, to you, compensatory for having one white parent and one African-American parent, people who you felt were, like, overstating their blackness as compensation for that or - you know, out of some kind of insecurity about, like, well, what am I?
SIMIEN: Yeah. Yeah, I think - you know, I don't think that that's necessarily true for every biracial person, but I think that I've certainly seen and just heard many stories of people who are biracial who do feel like culturally there's a choice to make - like there's one or the other, and you have to sort of make a very - you have to draw a very, you know, hard line in the sand of who you are because otherwise people will sort of make that decision for you. They will sort of place you in a box before you even have any say in the matter - and sort of as a - and frankly that is really - speaks to the heart of what I understand the black experience to be, is that when you walk into a room, you know - life has taught us that people are going to have untrue presumptions about you. And so, you know, as a way to sort of defend against that, you kind of have to make - there's this pressure as a black person, biracial or not, to sort of make declarative statements about what kind of a person you are. And, you know, just - my mother is Creole, so she, you know, is very light-skinned, African-American woman and, you know, relayed many stories to me growing up of just really having, you know - because it didn't matter that she was light-skinned. Like, she was black and the eyes of white people, growing up in southern Louisiana. And, you know, so for her, like, she made a very specific and clear choice that she was going to identify very specifically as an African-American woman and make that known to people.
And, you know, for me, yeah, I think it's - it is a pressure that society sort of places on us, you know. As a kid with a light-skinned mother, you know - it wasn't the same exact issue, but I remember sort of having to sort of explain that to people, you know, kind of growing up. And yeah, it is an added pressure, I think, of being a black person, period, whether you're biracial or not. And I think for Sam, you know, I think, she's really - what she's about to me is someone who is, I think, being very genuine and authentic to her voice, but only half of it. And, you know - because putting them together in the same box seems so impossible, you know, in the culture with which she's in. And that is a very unique pressure to people of color. And, you know, to me, like, you really can't talk about the black experience unless you bring up that particular kind of pressure.
GROSS: Are you light-skinned, and has that been an issue in your life?
SIMIEN: No, I'm pretty - I'm obviously black, I think. Although, there was some very hilarious debate on Twitter recently that I had to squash with a tweet that just said, I am black. But yeah, I don't know what I would - what would I be called? I don't know what my shade is. But I think I'm an obviously black-shaded person. That's a PC term to use.
GROSS: Gee, what was the debate about?
SIMIEN: Someone - for whatever reason, there was just a group of people on Twitter laughing because they thought it funny that some white people were offended by the title when the director is white. And, you know, I was like, huh? You know, so I just chimed - I just kind of chimed in via Twitter just to clear up any sort of questions about, you know, what I was.
GROSS: There's a satire magazine on campus in your film that does not come off very well. They're arrogant. They're - you know, they're crude, particularly the leader and kind of racist and confusing kind of satire with just being offensive. Did you have a bad experience with a humor magazine?
SIMIEN: (Laughter) I know, they ruined my life - no, I just, you know, really that particular aspect of the film isn't really even meant to sort of, like - I don't know - criticize humor magazines in general and certainly no specific ones. But I did find out here in LA, these closed loops of liberal white people that were unintentionally offensive and had no idea, you know, truly that they were being that offensive because to them it was irony and it was satire. To them it was satire. It was irony. It was just sort of saying, you know, the most shocking possible thing. And I would walk away from experiences with those people feeling like, wow, these are the people who are writing the culture, you know.
Just as a black person watching TV, a fan of comedy on television and sketch shows and things like that, and you can always feel when that writers' room had no black people in it. You know, just the way that joke is told or the way that scene was portrayed, the way that one black character on the program was written. You know, it just felt very much like seeing myself through the eyes of people who had no contact with anyone like me. And really that's what Pastiche is meant to represent in the film.
GROSS: That's the name of humor magazine.
SIMIEN: Yes. Yes, Pastiche.
GROSS: Justin Simien will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the new satirical film "Dear White People" and also has a new book with the same title. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Justin Simien, the writer and director of the new satirical film "Dear White People." Set at a fictional Ivy League college, it's about a group of African-American students dealing with race relations and racial identity. Simien also has a new satirical book called "Dear White People: A Guide To Interracial Harmony In A "Post-Racial" America."
So much of your film "Dear White People" is about like, a new form of segregation on campus. It's not official segregation but, you know the white students sticking to themselves and the black students sticking to themselves. And I'm wondering if you see an equivalent in the film world? You know, that there's films that are predominantly - that predominantly star African-Americans, that have a predominantly African-American audience and vice versa - films that are about white people and have a predominantly white audience. And that you know, it's maybe surprisingly unusual to have a really integrated movie audience in a lot of multiplexes or art houses.
SIMIEN: Yeah, I think it's strange because that's not really reflective of America at all anymore, or even groups of people in America, you know? It's very rare that I ever have a day where everyone I encounter is black. Quote, unquote "black movies," sometimes everyone in the world of the story is a black person - which I've never been to that neighborhood but, like, let's do it - where just all day long, like the postman, the person at the drive-in, just everybody in the world is black or white. I've never seen that version of America in real life, but I think specifically, recently as Hollywood has gotten more myopic and sort of has to, you know, make very specific choices based on how they think the audience will respond when sort of putting a movie through the production pipeline. Yeah, it's gotten real crazily bad, I think. I think TV's gotten it right, you know, Shonda Rhimes has figured it out - of getting multiracial casts on television and appealing to everybody. And you know, it's interesting because I haven't seen that with quote, unquote "white movies," which, you know, most people just call movies. They don't just appeal to white people. You know, it's just sort of taken as a given that a white cast represents everyone, you know? A white male in a movie is an everyman type character whereas a black male in a movie is a black character. And it's a black movie and it's only for black people. But, you know me and all my black friends go to see everything. And you know so I'm kind of like - I kind of, when making the movie I never really understood why that wasn't really reflected in the art house, which is the aspect of, you know, cinema that I'm particularly interested in. You know, I love art house movies. I love movies that come from auteur voices, that are very specific and have their own point of view and there's very rarely people of color in those stories. And it's not even necessarily that those stories have to be about the experience of people of color, but I just sort of - yeah I kind of get tired of going to movies that I think are going to be great and not seeing myself just anywhere in the picture, literally in the picture. It's frustrating because I love those kinds of films and you know, I think - when I first started writing the film back in 2006, you know, which was for me a particularly bleak time for black movies. There were really only a couple year at that time and you know, I just sort of longed for the days of, you know, "School Daze" and "Do The Right Thing" and "Hollywood Shuffle" and "Love Jones" where like, you'd have a variety of movies out in a year that were just great and they had people of color in them. And you know, maybe not everyone went to go see them, but you know, they drew large crowds. You know, "Boyz N The Hood" was like this huge phenomenon when it came out and I feel like we don't really have that equivalent today, you know, unless it's a very sort of specific kind of black story. And so I just you know, I just wanted to sort of introduce a film that sort of spoke to a different aspect of the black experience, that wasn't sort of tragic, or in the past, or urban or you know, fluffy like romantic comedy, but that still had people of color in it.
GROSS: So when you went to college and suddenly you were really in a minority - because it was a predominantly white campus - people were more likely to define you as African-American because you would stand out more than you would in your neighborhood that was prominently black, or in your high school that was very diverse. At the same time, you're gay. So I'm wondering if you felt at all like an outsider within the African-American community on campus where you were.
SIMIEN: I did at first, you know, but that didn't last for long because you just start having conversations with people and being more comfortable. I began to be more comfortable with myself. But there is this impression that I don't think is unfounded that within certain groups of you know - black folk, it is a bit of a touchy topic. And that's not for all black people, certainly not my friends obviously, that are black. But it's something I encountered growing up and so you know...
GROSS: How did you encounter it growing up? Like, what did you encounter?
SIMIEN: Just sort of expressed homophobia (laughter) and sort of, you know, I remember being warned about going to a performing arts high school and what that might do to me. And yeah, it's there...
GROSS: Were you thinking, oh, it's already done (laughter)?
SIMIEN: A little bit (laughter). Like, whoops - missed that boat. But like also, you know, there's also something very powerful about the absence of something in the conversation. You look at black popular culture and there aren't any - there are very, very, very few images of gay men, period and certainly even fewer positive images of gay men in black popular culture. And the absence of that says something, just as much as anything does. And oftentimes when you see gay characters in quote, unquote "black movies," they're you know, dismissed or villainous, or comical or they're clowns, you know, they're sort of otherwise not regarded well by the narrative. And yeah, I mean I think all of that sort of has an impact.
GROSS: Justin Simien, thank you so much for talking with us.
SIMIEN: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Justin Simien wrote and directed the new satirical film "Dear White People." We have an audio extra for you - Justin Simien talking about interracial dating that you can hear on SoundCloud at soundcloud.com/freshair.
Coming up, what makes a good book cover design? We hear from Peter Mendelsund, who's designed hundreds of book covers. This is FRESH AIR.
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