Happy to Be a Guide to Black Identity ; Director Justin Simien Goes Mainstream with 'Dear White People'

By George, Nelson | International New York Times, October 10, 2014 | Go to article overview

Happy to Be a Guide to Black Identity ; Director Justin Simien Goes Mainstream with 'Dear White People'


George, Nelson, International New York Times


Justin Simien goes mainstream with the film "Dear White People."

In the YouTube video "How to Fake You Watched the BET Awards," two 20-ish black men run into each other at a coffee shop. One asks the other if he watched the ceremony, which is annually one of the year's most-viewed cable shows among African-Americans. His companion stumbles for a reply.

Cut to a bespectacled, tie-wearing host, who says: "Are you black but not 'black' black? I get it. Things can get awkward when you are expected to participate in certain cultural touchstones, even though you don't really care. You know you need to front, but how? Don't worry. I got you."

What follows are suggested responses ("Of course, man, did you see the fight?"; "Say what you will about his personal life, that Chris Brown can dance") that are either satirical, droll or matter of fact, depending on your knowledge of or irritation with black mainstream pop culture. The video ends with our host observing, "Few things are more satisfying than living up to the racial stereotypes held about you by your closest friends."

This post, which has had more than 56,000 views since the summer, is part of a medley of satirical short videos and public-service announcements on the Dear White People channel, a reflection of the worldview that the writer-director Justin Simien has been developing since 2006. His comic vision goes mainstream with the limited release in the United States of a feature film, also titled "Dear White People," next Friday. It was well received at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning Mr. Simien a special jury award for breakthrough talent and getting him named one of Variety's 10 directors to watch.

Set at fictional Winchester University, an Ivy League-style institution with financial problems, "Dear White People" focuses on African-American undergraduates connected both by race and their obsession with media, old-school and new:

Samantha White is the biracial campus provocateur, host of the incendiary radio show that gives the film its title.

Lionel Higgins is a socially awkward, gay would-be journalist trying to fit into highly stratified campus cliques.

Coco Conners burns for reality-show stardom, 100,000 followers on YouTube and acceptance by white and black gatekeepers, including a controversy-seeking TV talent scout.

Troy Fairbanks, son of Winchester's dean, seeks membership on the staff of Pastiche, a satirical magazine modeled on The Harvard Lampoon, as a way to escape familial pressure to succeed.

The film has earned comparisons with two pointed late-'80s comedies, Spike Lee's "School Daze" and Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," but "Dear White People" is distinguished by a contemporary sensibility: not post-black, but very much 21st century as it tries to update and expand notions of black identity. With the civil rights generation fading in prominence, there's latitude for myth making, and Mr. Simien finds his voice in the fluidity of current racial and sexual politics.

For Mr. Simien, a 31-year-old Texas native, the inspiration for "Dear White People" was his undergraduate years in Southern California at Chapman University. "A black face in a white place," he said, is both the tagline for the movie and the reality of his life on campus, where only 1.6 percent of the student body is black.

While at Chapman, he was also coming to terms with his identity as a young gay man. This dual struggle informs the final film, though the idea would go through several permutations. Would it be a TV show, web series or feature film? At one point, Mr. Simien had a Robert Altman-style script, focused on eight characters. In this early stage of the writing, Mr. Simien found inspiration in the bold comic choices he saw on "Chappelle's Show," the 2003-6 Comedy Central series. …

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