As Sam White, an aspiring filmmaker, strolls through the courtyard at fictitious Winchester University, her teaching assistant tells her the best way to reach viewers is to make her film a mirror and hold it up to the audience. The film in which the scene takes place, “Dear White People,” does just that.
“I want people to ultimately see themselves,” writer and director Justin Simien said in a recent phone interview. “I think that’s sort of the role of art in general.”
White and Winchester are fictional parts of the satirical film that explores the lives of four black students at the predominantly white college. The film is smart, funny and provocative, with characters often making insightful statements about black culture that whiz by before you know what hit you.
“Dear White People” is the name of White’s college radio show, where she confronts racial stereotypes with quips such as, “The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”
Though the discussion of race is evident from the title of the film, the movie also confronts how we identify ourselves and how we reconcile our often-conflicting identities with ourselves and society.
“I wasn’t interested in making a morality play,” Simien said. “I wasn’t interested in the conclusion being ‘racism is wrong.’”
Instead, Simien shows the complexities and contradictions of young black college students attempting to define themselves today, particularly in predominantly white institutions.
The Sundance Film Festival hit certainly resonated with the audience at the National Museum of the American Indian on Sept. 24, which was the film’s first stop on its screening tour.
“Dear White People” drew enthusiastic cheers from the audience as the credits rolled.
The audience consisted of many young black college students from around D.C., but also a number of Hill staffers. Also spotted in the audience was Rep. John Conyers Jr., the 85-year-old Michigan Democrat who is also the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
“Dear White People” was shown as 10,000 people from around the country attended the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 44th Annual Legislative Conference in Washington. Although the screening was not part of the conference, its timing was not a coincidence.
Marshall Mitchell, a spokesman for Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, which own the rights to the film, said the screening was planned around the conference.
Mitchell, a former Hill staffer, said the CBC conference “is a time when issues of importance to African-Americans from legislation to social justice are talked about in Washington, D.C., so the timing was perfect in terms of the release of the film and the ALC weekend.”
Mitchell reached out to local colleges and Hill staffers to advertise the screening and thought it would be particularly important to legislative staffers.
“It’s a relevant film to inform them of the culture going on on college campuses,” he said.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the Center for American Progress teamed up to host the screening, which included a discussion after the film.
“The world of Winchester is a microcosm for the larger American experience,” Simien said at the panel. He noted the pressures to fit into a sphere of black culture persist throughout one’s life.
Simien was inspired by his own experience in college, where he was one of the few black students on campus. “I often found myself being a black face in a white place,” Simien said. “And me and my black friends often found ourselves sort of toddling between the different worlds, modulating our blackness.”
“All of my characters are very messy and they’re complicated and they’re contradictory,” Simien said. That “messiness” is part of what makes the characters so relatable.
The characters also confront how white students interpret black culture in one of the most jarring scenes in the films when students paint their faces black, blaring hip hop and playing at being “gangster” by sporting toy guns and gold chains.
Simien said he chose a to highlight a blackface party because it “really articulated the horror of seeing the black experience interpreted through people who have no sort of contact with that experience.”
That interpretation persists in media portrayals of “popular black culture,” as Simien put it, which is used in marketing campaigns and films. Blackface parties are also a reality at some universities, which Simien reminds his audience by interspersing pictures from actual parties in the credits.
“I definitely made this movie to spark a conversation,” Simien said. The conversation will continue as the film hits select theaters on Oct. 17 and goes nationwide on Oct. 24.
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