Dear White People hit select theaters this past Friday, with a nationwide release scheduled to occur on Friday, October 24. It has been heralded as a necessary and game-changing film about race relations in what is viewed as ‘post-racial’ America, but beyond that, it is a nuanced and hilarious story about being a black student on a predominately white college campus.
The Visibility Project had a chance to talk with actress Naomi Ko, who plays Sungmi in the film, about creating content as a millennial woman of color, her role in the film, and what the film means to the broader entertainment industry.
The ViP: Introduce us to your character in Dear White People.
Naomi Ko: Sungmi is the Asian-American character in the movie. 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.
The ViP: You said she’s an art major. What’s her favorite album?
NK: Probably Queen.
The ViP: You find out about the role and you read about the character and you find out she’s an art major and she’s hanging out with the Black students on campus. What’s running through your head right now?
NK: She is awesome and I want to be her best friend.
The ViP: (laughs) That’s real, I feel that.
The ViP: WHAT’S ONE THING YOU LEARNED FROM BEING A PART OF DEAR WHITE PEOPLE?
NK: I think the 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.
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—you know, if you want to be a doctor. It’s just because there’s so little of us, but there’s so many baby boomers and there’s so many people who are older than us that are taking over the industry. 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. I think that’s what Dear White People really proves.
The ViP: So it’s kind of the proof that a lot of these things that we’ve been talking about wanting and thinking and, you know planning, can come to fruition. That’s pretty cool.
NK: Yeah. I think so. And 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.
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 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 in their blood, sweat, and tears to make this a reality.
NK: Well, what’s really funny was 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. (laughs) 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. Some of the positive remarks are legitimate and some of the negative remarks are as well. But I think in the end, I don’t really care what they think because I’m happy that they thought about it.
The ViP: Gotcha. That’s a good way to look at it.
NK: Because they’re actually spending time and energy and really digesting the script and digesting the performances and really taking a look at this film as a whole. And the thing is that they’re being specific about it. They have evidence to prove that and then, in the end, that just shows me that they’re thinking critically about this movie, which, I mean, I can’t speak for Justin and I can’t speak for the production team, but for me, if audience members are thinking critically about this movie, I think they have done what the film wants.
The ViP: So it’s similar to the [idea of] no-such-thing-as-negative-press in a sense. Where [the feeling is] ‘okay, at least they’re talking about it, at least the conversation is happening.’ It’s better than us just kind of glossing over it and having another franchise film.
NK: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I mean, obviously, you know, this is a Lionsgate film. We’re being glossed over by Brad Pitt in Fury and we’re going to be glossed over by The Hunger Games the week after our national release. And, I mean, I don’t want this to be that standard film.
The ViP: Right.
NK: I mean, the whole point of this film was that it was a grassroots movement. It’s that people are involved. People are committed. And I think that’s what’s important.
The ViP: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
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 [Lopez], and Lena [Waithe] can all get together and create a project and spend time on it and be dedicated to 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.
Not only is Dear White People making waves across the nation, but it is also showing other creators of color that their ideas are viable. As Ko stated, this isn’t just a movie—it’s a movement. And it’s one that you’ll want to be a part of.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out or profile of Naomi Ko for our Soapbox Series here: “Dear White People’s Naomi Ko on Avoiding the Asian Representation Trap and Being a Millennial of Color” by Kylee McIntyre. Photos by KAMMs.
Get your tickets now at dearwhitepeople.com/tickets!