Sequels, Success, and being Unfazed by the Spotlight:
Dear White People‘s Justin Simien for President of the Millennial Generation
Today is the day. Dear White People opens in theatres nationwide. The buzz and anticipation surrounding the film is still growing, and word is still spreading. Dear White People is holding a strong hold to the 95% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes – no easy feat in general, the controversial nature of the satire making it an even bigger accomplishment.
Justin Simien’s debut feature opened in four major cities last Friday on 11 screens to rake in $344k. In many ways, Dear White People has raised the bar again, set a new standard in filmmaking and served as proof to the industry and other marginalized creatives alike. There are any number of factors that have contributed to the film’s current and projected success. The biggest and perhaps most important factor is Simien’s writing.
Simien’s writing is layered and developed in a way that makes the film feel fresh even after repeated viewings. I’ve seen the film three times so far – Los Angeles Film Festival, the first opening night, and the following Sunday. Three different theatres, three very different audiences, and several different film-watching companions have afforded me a relatively well-rounded opportunity to discover more and more with each viewing, see the satire and its characters in new ways, and have very different sessions of discourse after each viewing.
The first night The ViP staff and I gushed about the film for hours, until we fell asleep back in our downtown Los Angeles hotel room. The second time, two friends and I talked until 2 a.m. outside of the theatre – about the film, the large group of what appeared to be college students outside discussing it, and the innumerable topics the viewing inspired.
The third viewing was an early Sunday show with a moderate audience. That meant there were times I was the only one in the theatre cracking up at particularly funny moments, like “this is a research school,” with my moms throwing me the side-eye, finally witnessing just how much I enjoy this film. Cue my one critique of Dear White People: the laughs are too close together or maybe there are too many of them.
That’s a terrible critique, I suppose, and a great problem to have. During the second viewing I missed so many jokes and one-liners because the audience was still laughing from the previous funny moment. I could only see Naomi Ko‘s lips moving as her character, Sungmi, dropped one of my favorite lines explaining her reason for frequenting the Black Student Union meetings. I really wish I’d known Sungmi while I was in high school and especially college.
The third viewing is when I finally felt the weight of Dear White People. Walking out of the theatre my mom and I discussed why she preferred Reggie over Gabe for Sam simply because he was Black, a brother. I disagreed, with good reason, but didn’t dismiss her stance. It was a teaching opportunity. We discussed both characters, how they related to Sam, how they treated Sam and more. By the end she had changed her own mind and I was more excited than I had been in a long time – it was the first real conversation I’d had with MOMMs in as long as I could remember and Dear White People made that happen.
That to me is one of the many testaments to Justin Simien’s writing. Only stories this well-written, this layered, and with characters this well-developed allow for hours upon hours of seemingly endless conversation, ever-fresh discourse, and the bringing together of estranged family members.
The Visibility Project: Congratulations on ‘Dear White People!’ Less than 1 week away – well, for some. Which date feels like the real release date for you?
Justin Simien: The 17th. I would have to say the 17th because you know that’s when we’re going to know – that’s when we’ll be able to tell how it’s being received. [After everything] I’ll know Friday. (laughs)
TheViP: GIVE ONE REASON PEOPLE NEED TO GO SEE DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.
JS: 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.
The ViP: Right.
JS: 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 this movie 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.
The ViP: WHAT’S BEEN THE BEST THING ABOUT THE DEAR WHITE PEOPLE FILM PROCESS SO FAR?
JS: The best thing about it is when you screen it and you just really feel like people got it. I feel like part of the driving force of any storyteller is to not just tell a story, but feel like the story has been heard and feel like it made an impact with people and sort of spoke to them in the way that it spoke to you in your head and in your dreams.
To be able to screen the movie for people and see people really get to see themselves on screen and see their experiences articulated in a way that they never thought would happen—that’s awesome. And to see people who, you know, look nothing like the characters on the screen and have not lived those lives, but to also sort of get something from the film. That’s an incredibly gratifying process. It’s cool. It’s just cool that it’s happening on such a wide scale as this film.
The ViP: I can imagine how that would be gratifying, really. Is there extra significance that Dear White People is your debut, already highly successful and in many ways community-made?
JS: You know, I think that it’s just sort of—I always saw it as a first film. You know, I don’t know why, but it’s the first feature film that I ever attempted to write and I obviously took my time. (laughs) Perfecting it and bouncing around other projects and things, but there is something very cool about the fact that I remember sitting by myself in one of the cafeterias in college, just for a brief minute…imagining what this movie could be.
JS: And just the thrill of that moment when you’re just thinking, ‘Oh god, that would be great.’ You know, and to see this sort of happening and manifesting on the high end of what I was hoping would happen. You know, that’s something that is very sweet and elusive and rare. And it does have a special significance. Just by you asking that question and me sort of thinking back on it, I remember that moment and how impossible it was that a movie like this would ever happen, let alone reach national attention and get success and put us on TV and all this stuff. It seems so impossible to a college junior, *laughs* in 2005. And to see it finally realized—some nine years later—it’s pretty incredible looking back on it.
The ViP: How are you dealing with that? Especially as a creator, you get told you’re going to go through a bunch of nos, a bunch of failures, and it’s not going to be your first project [that will be successful]—is it like a sudden rush of what seems like overnight success, even though we know it took some time? How are you dealing with that?
JS: You know, I’m dealing with it pretty well, I think. You know, I’m kind of a jaded person. (laughs) And that’s not in a bad way, but I always feel publicity, you know, I know these things come and go. I know that this is sort of transient, this experience, and that nothing is guaranteed. I don’t really get caught up in it, to be honest with you. I’m definitely, in general—probably to a fault—a person who focuses much, much more on the negative, difficult aspects than I do on the positive ones. So, you know, for me, I just want to stay in the game. I feel like with this movie coming out, I kind of showed up for my first day at work. You know what I’m saying? And now, it’s time to sort of build a career. And that’s what my focus is. I’m just interested in sort of being here for the long term.
The success of this movie—success in general—it’s great because it allows me to make more movies, but that’s really all it means to me. You know what I’m saying? It’s cool to be a known person and for people to want to talk to me, but that’s just because it helps me do what I love doing, which is to tell stories and in this industry, it would be virtually impossible to get financing if people weren’t interested, so it’s a necessary evil in my opinion. But I certainly never—you know, ‘success,’ whatever that means. That’s never really been the goal for me.
The ViP: You said it’s like showing up for your first day at work, which is interesting. Any concern that you may get boxed in as a filmmaker?
JS: Well, you know, I think that because the movie is so unconventional and was always intentionally so, that helps a little bit because I’m not sort of just fitting into a preexisting groove. I think people don’t know yet what a ‘Justin Simien film’ is or what it looks like and I don’t even really know. I think it’s obviously like, you know, in Hollywood, it’s sort of the lazy, easy thing to do. I’ve taken those meetings where it’s like, ‘Well now can you make our college comedy?’ And the thing is, no (laughs), I’m just not interested in doing that again. So, I think the box is as limited as I’d like it to be. I mean, there was no box at all for me a couple of years ago and I made one, so if I have to make another one, I’ll do that. (laughs)
But I think boxes are made because people feel pressure to stay in them to stay successful and I just don’t. I don’t feel that pressure. I mean, I couldn’t get it up to do—you know, to repeat myself, in a way. And I think that, you know, I’ve talked about this before. I think that there’s more life in Dear White People. I think a Dear White People television show needs to happen, but in terms of my career ultimately, I just have other things to say and just like Dear White People, I’m not going to be sated until I get to say them. (laughs) I’m just going to keep going.
The ViP: You’ve spoken previously about the problem of the film industry consisting only of carbon copies and sequels.It was mentioned in an article back in July that there wouldn’t be a Dear White People sequel. How important is originality for you? Or has the possibility of a sequel changed?
JS: I think originality is great. I think some movies are great as franchises. You know, I don’t remember saying that there will never be a sequel for the movie but I think that if the story were to continue, it’d make sense to do so on television. I just think that the nature of the characters and what I would want to do next—like, I would never want to make this movie again. You know what I’m saying? If I were to continue this story, I’d want to continue it in a slightly different fashion. You know, one of the frustrating things about this movie for me was having to stop and sort of, you know, having to limit the amount of stories and ideas and points of views that I wanted to put forth in the project because we had to focus and, you know, if I had more than a couple of hours—if I had thirteen hours of a series to really tell these stories, then for me, that would just be fantastic and I wouldn’t feel like I was repeating myself. I’d feel like I was just sort of continuing the story. I think originality is important, you know, because everyone’s point of view is so different and so unique and I think that if we’re sort of busy telling other people’s stories or telling them in a way that other people tell them, that doesn’t feel unique. That doesn’t feel genuine. That doesn’t create the kind of movies that make me feel some kind of way. That doesn’t create the kind of stories that sort of make me see the human condition through somebody else’s eyes.
The ViP: Mmm. Yeah.
JS: You know? The most powerful films and television shows for me are the ones that from very unique places because they show me the world in a different way. And that’s what to me is so exciting about storytelling and so exciting about the stories and the movies and the television shows that I watch. And that I hope to create.
The ViP: Nice. Okay, so, about the sequel—it wasn’t a direct quote, I think it was a Vulture article that said it very matter-of-factly, so I wasn’t sure if that was something you said, but that makes sense.
JS: Well, I don’t think that there should be a ‘Dear Black People’ and a ‘Dear Straight People.’ I don’t think we should do that. (laughs) But I would love to keep telling the story. I think there’s more characters and there’s a lot more with the current four characters that I think would be really great to get into.
JS: All of the above. 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.
Justin Simien and Dear White People are as much apart of and a linchpin to the Millennial revolution as The Dream Defenders and activists and protestors in Ferguson are. To call him a revolutionary and hail not only his creative genius, vision, and unwillingness to accept no as a final answer is appropriate and deserved. As much as the film’s success is a testament to Simien and his talent, Simien, the film, and it’s characters are also a testament to the Millenial generation.
We’re done letting others speak for us, and more importantly, define us, tell us who we are and are not, what we want to see and hear, tell us that we don’t care, are lost, confused, unable or incapable, especially when we recognize the perpetrators and accusers are one and the same.
Simien’s Dear White People is the real deal. Brilliant, intelligent, hilarious, unconventional, bar-raising and boundary-pushing magnificent, Dear White People is much more than the School Daze or Do The Right Thing of our generation. It’s both of those and then some. It’s a conversation piece and a milestone for a generation more than ready and overdue for all that it brings.
Go see Dear White People today. Then again on Sunday. Talk about it through the week and see it again next weekend. Get tickets at DearWhitePeopleMovie.com/tickets