“Dear White People” has finally hit select theaters and is set to hit screens nationwide October 24. The film we have all been yearning, begging and waiting for is finally within our grasp.
We had a chat with one of the film’s stars, Justin Dobies to discuss “Dear White People,” white privilege, and his role in both.
The ViP: First of all, congratulations on the film, man. It comes out in less than 24 hours.
JD: I know, right? It’s crazy.
The ViP: Is this your first feature in theatres?
JD: This is my first feature film, yeah.
The ViP: Ah, nice. What’s that feel like?
JD: It’s been crazy. It’s been just this mind-blowing change. I don’t think this is a normal trajectory for (laughs) for your first film.
The ViP: Right. I was talking to—I think it was Angel Lopez about that and a couple of other people, even Justin Simien, and I was just saying for a lot of people who are apart of this project, this is the first feature film they’ve done. It’s true for a large part of the cast and crew and I think that’s pretty amazing to see where it’s gone.
JD: Oh, it’s very cool. One, because it’s such a labor of love for so many people involved, you know? It’s very cool to see it go so far. So, we’ll see. We’ll find out tomorrow how [it does]—you know, or in the next week and a half.
The ViP: Talk to us a little bit about how you got involved with the project.
JD: So, I was in New York and I was pretty much exclusively doing classical theatre. Doing Shakespeare and stuff like that. I was visiting my family who [is] in Minneapolis—that’s where I’m from—and I was there, maybe there for about three weeks. And I checked out some of the casting stuff in the area and I just walked into a commercial casting agency and was like ‘hey, I’m going to be here for three weeks. Are you interested in representing me?’ They were like ‘yeah, why not?’
The ViP: (laughs)
JD: I did that on a Friday. I auditioned for ‘Dear White People’ the following Monday and so Monday through Wednesday, I was auditioning. And then got the role on Thursday and the next Tuesday, we were shooting.
The ViP: Wow. That’s crazy.
JD: It was so crazy. And one of those just incredibly right place, right time scenarios that I’m just so blessed to have.
The ViP: INTRODUCE US TO YOUR CHARACTER. AND THEN TELL US WHAT YOUR CHARCTER’S FAVORITE ALBUM WOULD BE.
JD: So, I play Gabe, the sort of secret white lover of Tessa [Thompson]’s character, Sam. 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.
The ViP: Mmm. Interesting.
JD: I don’t know, I bet J. Dilla, too.
The ViP: Dilla’s a really good choice, though, of all the choices. I like J. Dilla as an option.
JD: Yeah…Dilla’s someone I’d put.
The ViP: Okay, that’s cool. You get the audition, you could have easily said ‘ahh, I don’t know about this’ because it’s mildly controversial, right? What drew you to it, what made you say ‘yeah, I’m going to go ahead, take a leap of faith’ and hop right in?
JD: Well, a couple things. One, I was sort of vaguely aware of the Twitter handle. It was sort of in my consciousness previously and I don’t really remember how I was aware of that. So, when I got the audition, I was like ‘oh, this seems familiar.’ I read the script and I loved it. It was really smart and it was edgy and it was one of those [situations] where I wanted to hold my breath and see how this was actually executed. And so, sort of taking a plunge [because of] that.
But to me, I was very interested in the character. Partially because it was something that I just felt very comfortable in. It is based in a character that I have [a lot in common with]. I have had many experiences within my life in sort of his—being in a relationship where you’re discussing a lot of significant, serious issues and ideas in that space. But a loving space. I thought that was so important in the film, to be in a film that’s discussing so many issues of identity and race and all sorts of things in a variety of situations. I thought it was very important to see this discussed from a different angle – in the context of a loving relationship. (After a beat) Or be loving from Gabe’s perspective.
The ViP: OK. I like that. Now correct me if I’m wrong here. Do you have adopted siblings of a different race?
JD: I do, yeah. I have five younger siblings and the youngest two were adopted from Guatemala.
The ViP: Nice. So, my question to you is – did that have any influence or significance for you in understanding or at least being aware of privilege and race issues?
JD: Uh, yes and no. I think yes certainly, but at the same time – at the time my family was adopting, I think I was becoming a much more conscious person—socially and racially conscious. And so, I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that to those moments. I think there are better things throughout my life that have sort of broadened my horizons.
The ViP: When do you feel like you became aware? Do you know what that moment was or what lead you to being aware of your privilege, whereas many other people might not be or may never be aware?
JD: I think it’s a handful of things. I mean, on one level, I think that a lot of issues that we discuss like white privilege—if your racial experience is a monolith, then you have no frame of reference for how you’re treated versus others because everyone in your [world is treated the same].
The ViP: Right.
JD: You’re all in the same group. So I think that—well, one, I went to this very cool arts school that was pretty diverse. When I was in junior high that sort of gave me a greater—a magnet school in arts and diversity that sort of put an emphasis on appreciating different cultures and things like that and a lot of art and that kind of stuff. It just gets your mind thinking.
The ViP: OK.
JD: And I think the white privilege factor… I spent some time as a volunteer in this halfway home…in Minneapolis, which I think also kind of helped shape my mind – that sort of just crossed all sorts of socioeconomic spectrums. You know, all the things that broaden your mind. But I think as it relates to white privilege, definitely—this is a very stark contrast, or it’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s like you go to Africa. You feel white privilege in the most insane ways.
I spent some time in South Africa and Zimbabwe. You know the thing where it’s like you show up in a small town and now you’re [made] the guest of honor at a wedding – I’m being your guest of honor because it’s a big deal in this small village to have a white person at the wedding and I’m so deeply uncomfortable with everything about this, do you know what I mean?
The ViP: Right. Wow.
JD: Like, how do you honor these guests while also not perpetuating this awful racism? So it’s just sort of through those, and I think it’s friends I’ve had and people I’ve dated who’ve, you know, changed my opinions or broadened my opinions and horizons during my life.
The ViP: What are some ways that you as an actor—somebody who has influence and will only grow to have more influence as your career grows—what are some things that you can do to sort of make sure that you’re checking your privilege or you don’t get caught in situations that might be more subtle and not as overt?
JD: I think it’s—in a strictly acting capacity, I think I have sort of limited [options]. You can really only say yes or no to roles.
The ViP: OK.
JD: In a sense. But I [find] myself in a host of other writing and producing and directing roles, very much—I mean, this is maybe, unfortunately, a very schematic and simple attempt that in no way really diagnoses a systemic problem of misrepresentation or lack of representation on screen, but just knowing that if I’m involved in projects and have the ability to cast actors of color, I always would rather have—and actually, not even [just] color, just anyone who’s of any sort of minority that isn’t being represented, I want to be able to help those people have—you know, see themselves on screen. I want my brother to see himself on screen. And that doesn’t always happen.
The ViP: Right. Got you. I find that interesting because I’ve been getting a lot of answers that are very different, but along the same wavelength and what I mean by that is, a lot of folks talking about creating content and what they can do behind the scenes. Even the actors. Even Ashley [Blaine Featherson] and Nia [Jervier] talked about this—and Naomi [Ko]—have talked about the desire to and importance of creating more. I mentioned a shift, especially among [marginalized persons] wanting to create more and more and realizing we kind of have to create the content in order to cast people in these roles and [get them] into these projects, so that’s very interesting that you say that. And I’ve seen your resume—it’s crazy. What are some things that you’re working on besides acting?
JD: A couple things. So, I’m working on—let’s see, two screenplays that are in the works right now. One is kind of loosely based on this trip I took. One of my brothers and I [went] rafting in the Mississippi river. So I’m working on that and I’m also adapting a play that I wrote, while I was at Yale, to be a short feature. I mean, a feature, but on the 90-minute spectrum. And then I’m working on a sort of academic book about violence in the performing arts. The sort of poetics of theatrical violence. So, that’s still very much in the research [and writing] phase and stuff.
The ViP: Do you feel like of all the hats that you wear as a creative – as an actor, as a writer, as a producer – do you feel any one takes precedent over the others? Like would you call yourself an actor first, a writer first? Are they equal?
JD: Well, the hard thing is that right now, it’s two-fold—one is, everyone wears multiple hats right now.
The ViP: Right, right.
JD: With that said, though, no one wants to hire someone who does everything. You want to hire someone who’s really good at whatever you need them to do. So, I kind of spent a lot of time sort of hiding the multiple [hats]. So I worked for a while as a director for theater and ‘Dear White People’ actually hired me [as] the stunt-coordinator for the film as well.
The ViP: Wow.
JD: But I had those [skills] as separate websites for a long time because I didn’t want someone to think that—you know….
The ViP: It’s the jack-of-all-trades, master of none issue.
JD: Yeah! So, it’s hard. I spent a lot of time, when I was growing up – I was always directing movies and that was—in that sort of way, always wearing multiple hats. But I think that was actually very freeing for me that I finally got to Yale because I identified so strongly as a director. As an actor, I was kind of like ‘you know what? I don’t care if I—I have no pressure if I fail here. I’m completely happy to fail because I don’t identify as an actor at all.’ And then as I started doing that, it became something that was much more freeing and something that I really was able to put my heart and soul into.
The ViP: I see.
JD: So I don’t actually know if I can stick with one that I identify with most, although right now acting is sort of the big thing I’m pursuing.
The ViP: Why is ‘Dear White People’ important?
JD: I would say it’s important because I think it’s—well, one, it’s very entertaining. I found myself laughing so much more than I expected I would. And I think it has a pretty accurate diagnosis of the state of—I don’t know, I would say of racism in America.
But I think—and I could of course be completely wrong because I’m not a person of color, so I don’t have access to a lot of this experience. I think that for a lot of Millennials who aren’t in a very—aren’t in the famously racist hotbeds of America—I think that it’s been a more accurate depiction of their experience, I think [it] also sort of speaks to the multiplicities of identity that can exist and do exist within the black experience and within any minority subculture.
For me, that was something was very important and I think it’s a very rare opportunity as a straight white male who’s sort of the face of the patriarchy, you know, from the Midwest. It’s a very rare opportunity for me to be able to participate in a creative capacity and help foster positive dialogue about these issues.
JD: So I haven’t followed the comments yet, but I’m sure there will be [some criticism]. I’ll be curious to see if people are critical of me or of Gabe and Sam’s relationship. People who’ve seen the movie. I knew from Justin [Simien] that there were people who were upset that our characters end up together at the end of the movie. That sort of in her quest of identifying and exploring her own understanding of herself and how she’s rooted in the black experience or limited by or whatever it is that she’s navigating—People were upset that in the end, she chose the white guy.
And I think people read into that very strongly as — a greater message for others beyond her character.
Have you read—what is it?—Touré’s book, ‘Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?’ I think he mentioned something about this. It’s been a long time since I read that – about being very rooted in her experience of being black, but not being limited by that… I think the ethnicity of her boyfriend doesn’t—or the guy that she likes—doesn’t affect her interpretation or experience of herself.
I think also—and because most of the film is her own journey of identity in who she is as a person—as an activist, as an artist, and where she stands in those things—I sort of see her come to terms with not even just the racial element, but letting a guy into her life in a way that she hasn’t before.
The ViP: GIVE US ONE REASON PEOPLE NEED TO SEE ‘DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.’
JD: Because it will start conversation. That’s what I’d say. 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’d you’d think of my performance, type of situation. They had no interest in talking about my performance. They were all just deeply discussing their thoughts of the movie and how they’d experienced racism—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, “Oh OK, this is a good movie, then.” My friends did not care about me in the movie.[interview end]
Not only is “Dear White People” a conversation starter, it’s a reflection of the current state of affairs in America. There is something for everyone in this film – that’s a cliche but not an inaccurate one. Regardless of race, “Dear White People” has a message for you.
According to one of the film’s stars, Teyonah Parris, the film was “sold out in all [four] cities” it opened in. While that may be a surprise to some, after viewing the film in June, it’s no surprise to us.
Don’t wait. Get your tickets now at your local theater or at dearwhitepeople.com/tickets.Interview transcribed by Abigail Bereola.