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Director Justin Simien on Dear White People and Black Stories in Hollywood

Photo: Tibrina Hobson/Getty

Dear White People, which opens this weekend, is a movie that demands attention, and not just because of its provocative title. Writer/director Justin Simien, who started to work on the script in 2006, was able to make a movie that is both a compelling portrait of four unique black characters and a rich satire that fully captures the state of race and racism in post-Obama America. Vulture spoke with Simien about the evolution of the film, the honor and frustration of being compared to Spike Lee, Chappelle’s Show, and how to fix the movie industry.

Why this movie, now?
It was one of three screenplays that I kept bouncing around. And I was having lunch with Lena Waithe [Dear White People producer], and we were talking about this script, 2 Percent, that I started writing in 2006 and kept coming back to. Something just clicked in me that it was obviously the one that [I] needed to do first. It was 2009, and it was very specifically about the college experience. It was very slice-of-life, very Robert Altman–esque. I was attempting to follow all these individual characters through their own mini-movies. Then it was around that time that the Birther Movement was getting momentum, and this idea that we were post-racial was actually being challenged for the first time since Obama took office. The movie was not a college movie anymore; it was actually about the American black experience, and the American experience in general. I decided that this was going to be it, and if it took me ten more years, at least on that eleventh year, I’d be getting to do what I’d always wanted to do. The fact that it’s coming out now is just happenstance. You can’t control that part of it.

Can you say what the other two projects were?
I had a really, really tiny, tiny movie about gay black men in the South. I hate the idea of “on the down low,” but they’re men who don’t identify as gay but had these experiences. I also had this sweeping-through-the-ages, epic love story that I could never have made as my first film.

The idea first started after you graduated, around 2006. How how has the movie evolved?
I always loved multi-protagonist movies. But I didn’t realize what I loved about them until I started to hunker down and research how to write this film. They deal with something from all these different points of view. So I became a better writer in that period, and I became more interested in the global message of the film. Every movie has the thing it’s about, and then deep down, it has this thing that it’s really about. Star Wars is not really about a space opera, action, and the galactic quest. It’s about self-doubt. It was something I had to come to. The first drafts were really specifically just about the black experience as I knew it. This movie, while it is about that, it’s really about identity. If there’s any reason why people, no matter what they look like, are responding to the film, I have to owe it to that realization that I made at some point that I’m talking about this through a black lens, but I’m talking about something that’s universal.

Do you remember when you put your finger on identity as thing?
I know a lot of writers scorn this because it simplifies the process and it’s a very reductive way of putting it, but the Save the Cat books. It was really the only book that addressed multi-protagonist stories and how to put them together. Most screenplay books say, “You’re not Robert Altman, don’t try.” This was the one book that was like, “No, this is a genre and it actually has a rich cinematic tradition,” and “here’s how these films work.” One of the things he talks about is theme and really identifying the argument your movie hinges on. Not the moral, but the argument. It helped me really focus because my movie has a lot of words in it, there are a lot of ideas, there are lots of points of view, so it has to have something to hang all that stuff on.

Do you think the movie could’ve worked as a single-protagonist movie?
There is a version of this movie that could’ve worked as a single-protagonist story. Frankly, it probably would have been more commercial and easier to get made, but that just wasn’t the movie I wanted to make. I wanted to do a movie where for every point, there is a counterpoint. What I love about Do the Right Thing is like, who did the right thing? I have no idea, but you are talking about it and realize how these things can happen in our communities where no one is trying to do the wrong thing. For instance, like what we are going through right now with Ferguson and other tragedies like that. That movie, to me, which was done 25 years ago, says so much more about how an event like that comes to play. A singular story would be more dogmatic, but instead, you see Sal and you meet the police officers.

You mentioned Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee gets brought up in every review I’ve read of Dear White People. Does it bother you?
It doesn’t bother me. It would bother me if it were someone else — and I’m not alluding to anyone in particular — if the person they were comparing me to was not a genius and a heralded filmmaker and really one of the few black auteurs that we have. That’s a huge compliment. But it is a bit lazy. Spike is a hero, so I worry about him saying, “But he’s nothing like me. Why are they saying that?” But I also, at the same time, get it. Do the Right Thing was hugely influential on me, if only because it was also a multi-protagonist story that really aimed to tell the truth about how a tragedy happens. And it’s really one of the very few auteur-driven black films that is sincere and daring in its approach and subject matter. We just don’t have very many of them.

But there are lots of movies that do that. Election is also a huge influence on my work. At the end of that movie, everyone has betrayed their better nature. Even Tracy, who’s successful in the film, it’s like, “Oh, God, what a miserable life this woman is about to lead.” And poor Matthew Broderick buying flags at the museum. I think that’s what I love about multi-protagonist stories. You can get away with truthful endings because there’s no one character that the audience hangs all of their hopes on. Someone ends up dead at the end of Network [laughs].

I found it interesting that you made the villain, Kurt, a comedy writer.
Yeah, well [laughs]. It’s funny, Spencer Gilbert — who actually worked on some of the viral videos that we’re doing to promote the move, and he did a glossary of terms in my Dear White People book — was like, “It was really good, but man, you really lay into us comedy writers.” It’s not a global statement about all comedy writers, but it is attempting to say something about what can happen when you have really smart people that are trying to push the boundaries in a closed, cultural loop, where there’s no access to an actual person outside of your culture and there’s no interest in their experience of it. That’s how you get a situation where the New York Times is saying that Shonda Rhimes is an angry black woman. It’s very smart, well-meaning people who don’t realize that that’s a faux pas.

I see it a lot in comedy. People are trying to push boundaries. And the intention might be good, but the joke is not good enough or it’s just off, and it comes off as plain racist.
I actually struggle with this a lot, in going back and forth on jokes on the Twitter account or our social media. It is a fine line between making fun of the right thing and making fun of the wrong thing. And the language oftentimes is the same. And it can be agonizing, even as a black person. I find myself writing a joke one day, and the next day being like, “Okay we cannot tweet that. What the fuck was I thinking? We’re making fun of the wrong thing here.”

It is the reason Chappelle quit.
Right! It’s like, “Oh, God, what am I doing?” One of my favorite skits that toes that line is the commercial for sleeping pills specially formulated for black people. And they open up the can and it’s ribs. I’m laughing hysterically because for me, it’s making fun of marketing folks and the people who commoditize black culture and the people who make the McRib commercials and try to sell us this idea that’s totally fucking racist and archaic. That’s what they’re making fun of. But then some people are going to laugh at it because like, “Oh, black people eat ribs.” And it is tricky, super tricky.

I wonder how Key and Peele does it.
The thing that’s cool about them is not all their skits are about race, which I think is really smart. It is a challenge, with movies like ours and shows like black-ish. It’s drawing the balance. If I ever get my wish, to have a television version of this, I don’t necessarily want to stay on the same topic. The title is provocative, it’s a very meme-y, hashtag-able title, but it’s actually not about what you think it’s about. It actually allows room to go in other directions

By making Sam a filmmaker, it gave you a certain freedom to criticize Hollywood. I recently rewatched Hollywood Shuffle, and I was like, “These are generally the same issues.” And that movie came out 30 years ago.
Right? The fact that the black acting-school segment is still accurate. If you’re a black actor, you need to know how to speak jive — slang now — or be a slave. And that’s still true [laughs]. It’s crazy.

Is there any hope? You’ve worked in the industry as well. Where do you point blame?
It’s the system. Hollywood is a world where the only thing that gets green-lit is something that made money the last year. And in the independent world, anything with a black cast has to be an epic historical thing with one of the three black actors that mean something overseas. Because all the investors are basing their investment on how they think it’ll perform overseas, so it’s a very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation for anything that’s not those two things. And it’s very, very frustrating. There’s hope on television because they really are going after these niche audiences. So a show like black-ish or a show like Key and Peele or a show like Boondocks is possible. But the art-house and the mid-budget movies have been squeezed out.

The reason why even if I didn’t make this movie, I’d want this movie to succeed is because if the movie makes money, and if it really makes money, Hollywood will green-light a script — maybe not quite like this — but something that aims for the middle and aims for a complex portrayal of these people. ”Oh, the people do wanna see this? Okay, great. How much money did Dear White People make? Great, let’s green-light this for 50 percent less than that.” That’s how it works.

It’s also a system that’s now completely run by financial people. There was a time when a studio executive would really love something and have no proof at all that it would work and just do it because they believed in it. That’s how Star Wars happened. Whatever the next Star Wars is, it won’t ever get made. When George Lucas was shopping Star Wars around, it was a convoluted script from someone who hadn’t done science fiction before, and the most a science fiction movie ever made at that time was $20 million. There was no reason to think that this would make anything more. It would have never gone through the business-affairs model that we have today. And that movie started the most profitable franchise in the history of cinema, and it really begat the whole blockbuster thing that’s keeping Hollywood afloat now. It’s crazy that there’s no lane for those movies anymore. It’s a shame.

It’s like, why make action movies based on original concepts when you have franchises like Marvel, which make a ton of money and are consistent?
I’m not throwing anyone under the bus, but what it would depend upon is hiring people because of their taste level and not because of their ability to put the right assets in this piece of meat that we’re serving out to American consumers. And that’s a harder thing to do. It’s a harder thing to build a business around people who just have really good taste. 

You’d have to have a person with taste, who spent all their time watching movies but also grew up with a very commanding presence and leadership skills.
And also a business-minded person. It’s a hard thing to find, and corporations that own the movie companies don’t have time for that.

Lastly, in the movie, Sam is a Taylor Swift fan. Have you heard her new song?
“Shake It Off,” or …

No, there’s a new one that came out this week.
I have not heard it.

I’ll play it.
What is it about?

[Plays “Out of the Woods“.]

I think Harry Styles.
It’s catchy, alright. Taylor Swift. I wish I had a more profound comment.

Director Justin Simien on Dear White People