Watching 'Dear White People' At Harvard : Code Switch Dear White People follows four black students at a prestigious, majority-white college, where racial tensions are threatening to bring chaos to campus. So why not catch a screening at Harvard?

Watching 'Dear White People' At Harvard

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"Dear White People" - the new film with that edgy title has Justin Simien, its young black director, being heralded as a Spike Lee for millennials. It's a movie about race and identities set at a fictional Ivy League college, or as the poster has it, a satire about being a black face in a white place. NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji talked with the director and has more.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: "Dear White People" follows four black students at a predominantly white college called Winchester University. Samantha White..


TESSA THOMPSON: (As Samantha White) We can bring black back to Winchester.

MERAJI: She's the militant film student who heads the African-American house on campus. Coco Connors, the assimilationist who wants to fit in by any means necessary...


TEYONAH PARRIS: (As Coco Conners) There is nothing hood about me.

MERAJI: Troy Fairbanks, the popular and handsome legacy kid and Lionel Higgins, the film's unlikely hero, a gay sci-fi geek who has no idea where he belongs...


BRANDON BELL: (As Troy Fairbanks) Tell me man, what's harder, being black enough for the black kids or black enough for the white ones?

TYLER WILLIAMS: (As Lionel Higgins) Being neither.

JUSTIN SIMIEN: I think the film attempts to admit that there is no quintessential blackness.

MERAJI: Director Justin Simien says "Dear White People" is about the battle these four characters are having with the identities they've created and their true selves.

SIMIEN: Each of my four characters are just attacking that same problem from a different point of view. The sort of idea - should I wear my hair this way? Should I be militant? Should I conform? I think they're all kind of struggling with the deep fear that this is all just in response to white people.

MERAJI: He says he's trying to get at how this battle between identity and self, a part of the universal college experience, is made more difficult when you're one of just a few black faces on a campus. Simien graduated from Chapman University, a predominately white private college in Southern California, and used his personal experiences to seed the script.

SIMIEN: My suitemate when I first moved in - this blonde, blue-eyed kid - he insisted that he was, you know, way blacker than me because he could Crip Walk and I couldn't.

MERAJI: He says it may sound insignificant, but these things happen all the time in college and beyond. Constantly having to prove your worth and your blackness can feel oppressive over a time. Having people assume you're a thug or a good basketball player or not black enough because you're smart or don't know the latest dance. For Simien, it's a form of racism.

SIMIEN: You know, racism is just part of that story. It's part of the world in which, you know, the kids in my film sort of navigate. It's not Ku Klux Klan lynch mob racism. It's sort of everyone in the workplace asking why you got the job, you know, or marveling at your mastery of the English language. These things do affect you.

MERAJI: He says "Dear White People" is a response to that argument that we're post-racial after electing a black president. And for proof, look no further than the protests in Ferguson, sparked by a white officer shooting a black teen. But beyond all that, he says he was hungry to see himself reflected in popular culture - a black man who's not a basketball player or a rapper, but the hero, who's smart and gay.

SIMIEN: I definitely got a subversive thrill out of, you know, sticking a gay character in the middle of a black movie that does aim for the mainstream because it's about time.

MERAJI: And Justin Simien says he thinks audiences have been ready for a film like "Dear White People" for a while now. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.

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