It’s “Dear White People” day.
By now you know how The Visibility Project feels about “Dear White People.” Despite our very matter-of-fact claims of flawlessness, incessant praise, and endless raving reviews of the film, some of you are still on the fence about this movie, nervous about the contents inside.
You shouldn’t be.
There are a multitude of reasons why you should go see Justin Simien’s debut feature-length film, “Dear White People.” We had chats with Simien, several cast members, and producers, Angel Lopez and Lena Waithe and identified the top four, the only four reasons you need to decide to go see “Dear White People” this weekend.
There are two words that continue to come up in the process of describing “Dear White People,” especially from the cast and crew. The same two that floated around our staff conversations after seeing the film: smart and funny. Brilliant and hilarious work too. Every person we’ve spoken to about this film has praised Simien not only for his work as a director, but emphatically for his writing, each actor citing it as “the thing” that drew them to the project.
The Cast & Performances
Great writing, really great writing can take you far, but damn if some mediocre actor doesn’t drop the ball and ruin it all – it only takes one. There are none in “Dear White People.” Instead you feel the presence of even the most minor characters who never utter a word. You buy into their stories. Readily willing to invest, you entrust them from the beginning to tell yours, or at least part of it – truthfully and un co-opted. Never before have I seen so many different versions of Black in the same body of work – all of them equally accurate and masterfully played by a well-cast ensemble of actors. Tessa Thompson anchors this film with her portrayal of Sam, one that leaves you with much the same feeling you had when someone first asked you if Mookie did the right thing.
You might not know exactly how you feel at the end but you’ll be ready to figure it out, so you’re going to want to talk about it. This is the type of film that will make you want to discuss it with anyone who will listen. There’s a good chance it will leave you fired up, motivated, chock full of adrenaline, sans anger. There are any number of directions a post-“Dear White People” conversation could take. The important part is that it’s happening.
Studios and networks have long since told us what does and doesn’t work in television and film, what will and won’t sell, what the makeup of the audiences are and what they want. Some of us have known for just as long just how out-of-touch studios and networks are, while others of us believed what we were lead to. From its crowd-funding phase to a national release and international screenings, “Dear White People” is proof of life from within the confines of an industry held hostage. It’s proof of possibility and diligence and power. It’s proof of the shift that’s in its infancy or as the “Dear White People” team calls it, the surge.
More than that, the (box office) success of “Dear White People” is how we prove we can not only digest 6-course meals of creative, original brilliance featuring underrepresented stories, but that we prefer and demand them.
BONUS: The Cameos
The cameos in “Dear White People” are really just elaborate cinematic shout outs and “I see Yous,” that make you feel a bit warm and fuzzy inside when you realize how everything has seemed to come full circle. They also give you an added glimmer of hope about the state of color television and film. Like unicorn dust or something.
If you’re still not a believer or even if you are, you can hear it for yourself:
The ViP: GIVE ONE REASON PEOPLE NEED TO SEE ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.’
Ashley Blaine Featherson: Because it will hopefully inspire you to have a conversation that you’ve been reluctant to have. That’s why I want people to come, to encourage them and inspire them to have a conversation they haven’t been having.
Justin Simien: I think movies have gotten a little stale. I think the unique point-of-view, idea/conversation-driven movies of the early 90s, late 80s, have kind of become totally extinct in the marketplace. I think my movie brings, or at least attempts to bring that back. [Studios are] never going to do anything, unless it makes money already. They don’t do something new unless it’s something old. If we can make ‘No Good Deeds’ happen and we can make ‘Think Like A Man’ happen, we need to make this movie happen because there’s a lot of filmmakers who are better than me with really great scripts waiting to get in the gate. And [‘Dear White People’] in a lot of ways is a test run for those movies. I would love for this movie to be more than a movie. I would love for it to be a movement just because I’m a fan. You know, I want to see these movies too. And I don’t want to just have to take eight years to make them. And a lot of the success depends on the theater, so that’s my one big reason why people need to go out opening weekend and give it some love.
Angel Lopez: The time is now. I just feel like the time is now for so many aspects of the movie. The time is now for the kind of conversation that I think the movie is trying to inspire. I think the time is now for so many of the creators involved, especially Justin Simien. The time is now for a voice like his and a vision like his and an inspiration like him for other young—and even not so young—filmmakers who are out there and have a unique voice and a story to tell, but need to know that there’s a way to do it that isn’t the way everyone else has done it. I think Justin has just done a great job of motivating people to step up and be inspired. I just think the time is now for people to seize that moment.
Lena Waithe: You’ll be talking about it. Also, this is the kind of movie that stands out. It’s unique, it’s fresh, it’s different. So, they should go see it just because they haven’t seen a movie like this in a long time.
Justin Dobies: Because it will start conversation. I definitely got a handful of my peers who I had worked on other projects with to see the film when it played at the Lincoln Center in New York and I was very curious because this was my first feature film – I wanted opinions on what [they though] of my performance. They had no interest in talking about my performance. They were all just deeply discussing their thoughts of the movie and how their experience of race had played out in their lives and where they thought it did or did not represent them, so that was just one of those realizations: this is a good movie, then. My friends did not care about me in the movie.
The ViP: INTRODUCE US TO YOUR CHARACTER.
ABF: Curls is…she’s militant and down for a cause. That’s how I can describe her as. She has no tolerance. Like, these white people at her school are about to make her jump off the top of a building. If I think of another way to describe her I’ll let you know. (laughs)
Naomi Ko: Sungmi is the Asian-American character in the movie. Um, she’s an Asian-American character. She’s Korean-American, she’s an art major and she chooses to live with Armstrong Parker and hang out with the Black Student Union, so that’s why you kind of see her hanging out with all the other students and whatnot. So that’s Sungmi.
JD: I play Gabe, the sort of secret white lover of Tessa [Thompson]’s character, Sam.
Nia Jervier: Okay, so I would say I’m Coco’s best friend, but like her minion. I basically do as I’m told.
The ViP: What makes you say that? Why did you pick minion as opposed to, like, confidant?
NJ: Because I don’t know if Coco is secure enough in herself to have friendships with people who are her equal. So I think that it makes her feel better probably to know that, that person’s like slightly beneath. I don’t know, never thought about it that way.
The ViP: WHAT’S YOUR CHARACTER’S MAJOR AND FAVORITE ALBUM?
ABF: Her [major] would be African-American Studies with a concentration in Pre-Diaspora. That’s what it would be! (laughs) And her favorite album would be the live James Brown album that he did for the troops. The same album where he did ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.’
NK: [Art and] Probably Queen.
JD: He is a film studies TA. So, film is his major. And I would say his favorite album is probably something like ‘Let It Bleed’ by the Rolling Stones.
NJ: I feel like mine would be something like Art History and her favorite album…The Beyoncé album. [after a bit] I don’t think that was out when we shot this.
The ViP: Probably not. Whatever, we make the rules.
The ViP: WHAT’S ONE THING YOU LEARNED BY BEING A PART OF ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?’
ABF: For me it was a lesson as an actor. Because ‘Dear White People’ is an ensemble… I learned lessons like how to make sure that [you know what] your character is like throughout the film. No matter how many lines you have, no matter how many scenes you have, how to make sure that your character is a vital part of the life and environment of the film. For ‘Dear White People’ being my first feature that was such a valuable lesson for me to learn, such an exciting challenge for me. And doing it with Justin – who’s an amazing director – was just an incomparable and amazing experience.
The ViP: It’s interesting that you say that because the staff at The Visibility Project and I, after we saw the movie at, the LA Film Festival…one of the things we kept going back to was the fact that you and Courtney [Sauls] had such presence. Even though you weren’t in the spotlight for the entirety of the film it’s like, y’all were there and we could see you. Y’all were serving face and were just so live and it was fantastic.
ABF: Yeah it was [so] invaluable…and that was the goal! Thank you so much.
NK: One thing that I learned… is that if you believe in the project and you’re having fun and you’re not actually taking it too seriously…no matter what, the work that you do is going to come out as authentic and truthful in that sense.
NJ: The main thing I learned is that you should listen to your inner voice no matter what. Stick to what you know your purpose is and push for something that you believe in. You know if Justin were not certain and connected to his inner voice…he wouldn’t have been strong enough to make this happen but because he was and he really believed in it and he knew what his truth [was]…he didn’t allow anyone to change what he’d written. He believed in it. He was fully immersed in the world that all these characters live in and believed and knew that people would identify with these characters and the stories even when other people didn’t believe it. So, I just really admire that about him and that was the biggest lesson for me – believing something in your heart, setting your mind to it, having faith, setting a goal and having the confidence that it will come to fruition.
LW: That I can do anything. Never take no for an answer. The fact that we got this movie made; the fact that it’s coming out in theatres is a miracle. It’s also because we never gave up, we never took ‘no’ for an answer, and we always figured out a way to get it done.
The ViP: WHAT DOES IT MEAN AS A CREATIVE OF COLOR TO HAVE ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’ (A PRIME EXAMPLE OF CREATING ACCESS, THE DIY METHOD, THE RESURGENCE, ETC.)?
LW: It just means that it opens up even more opportunities for me to tell stories, for me to help other people of color tell their stories. I know the same thing goes for Justin [Simien] and Angel Lopez, all of us, the whole team. Any success this film has makes it easier for us to go out and tell other stories.
ABF: To be a part of ‘Dear White People’ is…one of the greatest blessings of my life… Being a part of ‘Dear White People,’ and being in a film that will make an imprint on film and society forever…for me it’s just so timely. It’s coming out right when people are craving to see more Black talent. I think they’re craving for films that are talking about something. We’re craving for films that are going to want to make us leave and have a post-film discussion that is wayward and honest and generally provocative. So to be a part of the film is just the top of the cake and I’m incredibly grateful.
NK: I think what it means is that we can actually do it. Because I think for a really long time, millennials—you know, our generation—we’ve collectively seen it be harder and harder to break into any industry. And it’s not just film and entertainment. It’s finance, it’s medicine—but especially if you’re a creative person of color, entertainment itself is the hardest industry, probably, to get into. So selective. And then to be a person of color, which they don’t want, and then to be a female person of color, which they don’t, don’t want, I think a film like ‘Dear White People’ shows that if you have a great idea—if you’re talented and if you are determined and you have discipline and if you’re constantly diligent about what you want to do—that it can happen. And I think that’s what ‘Dear White People’ really proves. I think ‘Dear White People’ is really representative of our generation of, you know, young creatives like us that there’s this kind of self-determination.
AL: Just personally, it’s everything. Personally, it’s just like dreams fulfilled constantly. I just get chills thinking about it. But you know, on a sort of larger level, it kind of goes back to my first response. I just feel like it means for some people, the door has opened wider. You know, how to get things done and take things in your own hands.
The ViP: WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES IN GETTING THE MOVIE FROM THE CONCEPT PHASE TO WHERE IT IS NOW, GEARED FOR NATIONAL RELEASE?
AL: I guess the biggest obstacle would probably be getting other people on this van—[to prove] that there were people out there who wanted to see this movie. There were moviegoers out there who wanted to see it. You know.
The ViP: Sort of proving there was an audience.
AL: Yeah. Exactly. And I think that comes more from the industry standpoint. But proving to the industry that—I think just finding someone who believed enough to say all right, all these people responding on Twitter and liking the Facebook page and liking the concept trailer—maybe that does translate to real actual human beings who will go and see the film. I mean, we still have to prove that point, I think, but I’m just amazed by—just on social media—how quickly people respond. It’s bigger than a movie, even now. That hashtag, #DearWhitePeople. It’s not just about us anymore.
The ViP: WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?’
NK: I hope it just does well. I hope people go see it. I hope people go see it and I hope people laugh. And I hope that people also don’t take this film as seriously as they kind of are right now. You know, I know people are thinking that this is going to revolutionize the way we think about race, but I mean, as much as I want that to happen, I also want really good ticket sales and I want people to laugh because this is a film. It’s a satire. It’s funny. It’s well thought out. It’s creative. And I want people to enjoy it. I want people to think, too, but first and foremost, I want people to enjoy it and to appreciate the work that Justin Simien created and this world that he created and my castmates and my crew members all poured their blood, sweat, and tears into to make this a reality.
NJ: I’m so confident that it’s going to have a huge impact. This story that Justin is telling is truthful. It is one that people need to hear about often. I think it’s going to change lives and open people’s minds. I know that it’s going to be sold out everywhere. I just picture it being sold out everywhere and talked about everywhere… I think it’s going to shake people socially and in a good way. I think it’s going to have a definite positive impact and it will also lead to what our ultimate goal is—a resurgence of more things like this.
AL: I would hope for the people behind it—for the people involved, for Justin, for everyone else—I hope that ‘Dear White People’ just continues to open doors for everyone, continues to allow them to have the creatively free careers that I think they’re all supposed to have and at the level that I think they’re all supposed to be at. I think the door is open for conversation, you know, when it comes to race and identity and culture. I think that door has been opened and I think we have been a part of it – at least creating a new dialogue around it, but I hope that people watch this movie in classrooms and discuss the issues and use it as a tool to sort of broaden their understanding of race and identity in America and what that means to themselves as people. That’s what I’d like to see ideally.
LW: Yes, I want it to be a big success, but not necessarily for financial gain or for my own trajectory, but really because I think Black cinema is in trouble right now. What’s happening is [films have] the same cast, the same story, the same studio, they’re the same movies and there’s a reason why these movies are doing well and it’s because Black folks don’t have anything else to see. I want there to be competition. I’m not trying to take down the Will Packers, the Tyler Perrys of the world, but I want them to have competition.
You know, there are different things—there’s a happy meal, then there’s a six-course meal that’s homemade. I want people to start craving that six-course, homemade meal that was made with love and care and attention, rather than that McDonalds meal that was thrown together and just happened to have your name on it. They’re both going to feed you but one of them you’re going to remember—the six-course meal—years from now. We’re trying to give people the six-course meal.
The ViP: WHAT’S BEEN YOUR GENERAL RESPONSE TO CRITICS & CRITICISM?
LW: We really don’t have one. We really don’t. Because, why respond? We put art out—now, if somebody has a very sophisticated look at the film and they’re like, ‘Hey, this is a really cool argument, I think this was left out’ or ‘Speaking as an African-American woman who is darker skinned, who’s been surrounded by white people all my life, here’s my take on Coco and here’s why I think you guys might have gotten it wrong.’ That, I’m open to.
NK: Well, what’s really funny [is] that when I was doing the press circuit in Minnesota after the Sundance screening of it, I got a lot of responses from the interviews that I did with Minnesota press that this film was racist. (laughs) And I laugh because obviously they didn’t get to go see it. So, at the beginning, I kind of scoffed at it because I’m like, ‘You’re using a gut reaction.’ But what I like about it is that people are actually thinking about it… I think in the end, I don’t really care what they think because I’m happy that they thought about it.
The ViP: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
ABF: You know, I’m in a cool space right now because I just finished the improv program at UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade), so I just graduated from my improv program that I studied at for a year.
The ViP: Oh congratulations!
ABF: Thanks! Yeah so I just did that and I’m in a place where I’m developing and trying to create more work and trying to put my producer hat on and see what projects I want to create or collaborate with people on. But as an actor, there are always great things on the horizon for me. I can’t really say everything that’s going on.
NK: Well, right now, I’m working—I’m actually in the meeting room of my two most dedicated and favorite co-writers and we’re working on our own series of projects right now because we are, you know, people of color. We are women and we’re underprivileged and underrepresented and we realize that if a group of people like Justin, Angel, and Lena can all get together and create a project and spend time on it and be dedicated on it that it can happen, we just realized, ‘You know what, fuck it, we’re going to do it, too.’ So, that’s exactly what’s next.
NJ: Ladylike! I have a very, very, very good feeling about this project. It’s avant-garde, different. It’s very smart and stylish and dark and I’ve really never seen anything like it. So I’m very honored that Tiffany asked me, I think she’s brilliant and excited because Lena [Waithe] is one of the producers. Lena knows what she’s talking about. Whatever Lena tells me I listen. I know she loves me and has my best interest at heart and she has a good eye. She knows when something is good. I sort of feel like, it comes back to trusting your gut. I think that Lena is a tastemaker. She knows what she’s doing. I feel like the fact that she co-signed it and believed in it I know that it will grow and that what Tiffany has created is amazing. I don’t even have anything to compare it to.
JS: We’ve got the book coming out, hitting shelves next week. The ‘Dear White People’ book. The ‘Dear White People Guide to Interracial Harmony and Post-racial America’ (laughs), which is, you know, more tomfoolery just with the same sarcastic, sort of sardonic voice as the film. And I do think that the TV show is a really good idea and I think we should do that and I think companies should pay for that. (laughs) That should happen. But I’m also working on a project that’s sort of a take on the horror genre and I’m attached to a biopic and I’m attached to another film that I did not write, but it’s brilliant and I can’t wait to be a part of it, so I’m kind of just looking for stories that ring true for me and give me an opportunity to do what I love to do, which is tell stories that leave people feeling some kind of way and that’s what I hope to do.
LW: A big thing right now, ‘Bros Before Hos’ has found a home. We can’t say where, but we landed somewhere. So, there’s a deal in place for that. ‘Chiraq,’ which is an hour-long drama I wrote—Aaron Kaplan is attached to that as a producer and we’re trying to figure out where that could live or if somebody’s going to be interested in that. It’s a drama about gun violence in the Southside of Chicago. So, we’re talking about that. And I’m working at ‘Bones.’ This is my day-to-day; this is what I’m doing.
ON WHY IT’S IMPORTANT THAT ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE’ DOES WELL
LW: This is another reason why I say I want ‘Dear White People’ to do well because we work in the industry of copycats. Here’s the deal. ‘Bridesmaids’ did well and you saw eighteen other ‘Bridesmaids’-adjacent movies. There was a movie called ‘Bachelorette.’ That was basically ‘Bridesmaids,’ I mean give me a break. And everybody at the studio wanted their ‘Bridesmaids’…they all wanted a female-centered comedy. But before that, no one was making movies with a bunch of funny women, but you show it can be done right and it’s a hit, all of a sudden, everybody wants in. So, I think with ‘Dear White People,’ when it comes to us—we’ve heard this story before—that when our movies do well, it’s a fluke. But then again, we’ve gotten more of the same. Look at ‘Baggage Claim,’ ‘Ride Along,’ ‘Think Like a Man,’ ‘Think Like a Man 2.’ They’re all the same movies.
It’s the same movie, same script. There’s no difference, they just change the title. And then Black folks go out and [see it]. So, at the end of the day, for me, I’m hoping that if ‘Dear White People’ [does] well, studios will just turn up and say ‘we want our Black arthouse film.’ You know, that’s what we’re hoping.
It’s unfortunate because I feel like we don’t get that same treatment. If our movie does well, it’s like ‘well, that’s a fluke, that will never happen again.’ …And it’s frustrating as hell and then people wonder why they keep getting shitty ass Black movies because, like Justin said in his little diatribe, which I literally just shared on my Facebook page—so eloquent—he said, ‘We get what we pay for. If we keep paying for [that type of movie] you’re going to keep getting that.’ And you can’t complain about the movies not being well made or other movies being boring or [say] you’re tired of seeing the same old actors. Well, there’s a formula. And they’re going to keep following it. (laughs)
FULL DISCLAIMER: I have absolutely no connection to the film, ‘Dear White People.’ I’ve been asked this multiple times. It’s just seeing ‘Dear White People’ for the first time was a shock to the system that I’m still reeling from. If there were fangirl credits for films, I’d take that though.
Here’s the thing. Much like I resigned to believing I’d not see a Black president in my lifetime, I didn’t really ever think I’d get my generation’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ or ‘School Daze.’
It’s not faith in us I lack; it’s faith in them -to do the right thing. Which is why Simien’s collective of unicorns refusing to take no for an answer is so important and sets a really good example for millennial creatives, especially ones of the marginalized persuasion. It’s not the style of the film, or the cast, or the writing that I’m in love with. It’s the sum of all its parts and what the success of a film like ‘Dear White People’ means – possibility, access. ‘Dear White People’ is living, thriving proof of what we’re capable of and what’s possible when we demand better, fuller representations of ourselves on screen, a more accurate portrayal of the world.
Dear White People is in select theatres October 17 and opens nationwide October 24.
This weekend we’ll be posting the full-length individual articles. For more tea, including how the cast and crew feels about a “Dear White People” sequel, stay tuned!
Ashley Blaine Featherson’s interview conducted by Carlyn Worthy
Nia Jervier’s interview conducted by B. Alexandra
Interviews transcribed by Abigail Bereola