How many black friends do you need to not seem racist?

Still from the "Dear White People" trailer, courtesy of Justin Simien.

If you ask the team behind “Dear White People,” a buzzed-about film trailer that made the social media rounds last week, the answer is two.

As of Thursday, the trailer had more than 600,000 page views on YouTube — even though there’s no movie — just a screenplay and a provocative Twitter account that’s full of such advice on race. Sort of a cinematic #JustSaying for the masses.

The trailer presents the nonexistent film as a playful, yet honest acknowledgement of the uncomfortable, often hilarious, situations that occur around race and identity.

“Dear White People”owes much of its trending success to a campaign on the crowd-funding Web site, Indiegogo. Last week, the team behind “Dear White People” took the project to the site to raise $25,000 toward pre-production. They reached their goal in three days. As of Thursday, the project boasts nearly $35,000 in funds.

“Dear White People” is the brainchild of Justin Simien, 29, who started writing a screenplay about the cultural nuances that come along with being “a black face in a very white place”after he graduated from Chapman University, where he studied film. Two years ago he claimed the Twitter handle of the same name and started a chorus of tweets and retweets.

His screenplay features four black students and their experiences at the fictional, predominantly-white Manchester University, where an “African American”-themed party thrown by white students results in a riot.

Simien used Twitter to fine-tune the voice of “Sam White,” one of the main characters. In the trailer, Sam echoes some of the Twitter account’s quips. “DearWhitePeople. No need to start a Dear Black People. The programing on @VH1 has made us acutely aware of what you think of us.”

#DearWhitePeople - Ask yourself. Would you be listening to Wiz Kalifa if I wasn’t in the car? #reflections

— DearWhitePeople (@DearWhitePeople) March 28, 2011

Comments on the YouTube posting accuse “Dear White People” of being racist. Simien admits that the project carries a provocative title, but he hopes would-be viewers will look beyond that. The screenplay “is not about what white people have done,” Simien says. “It’s not about teaching white people a lesson. It’s about feeling different than most people around you. Once you get past that provocative title there’s certainly a lot more than first meets the eye.”

Even though the majority of the main characters are black, Simien says the story will resonate with people of all races.

“Everyone can relate to feeling different than what other people see them as,” Simien said. The identity crisis that happens in college is a universal experience.”

When it comes to race, the general impulse may be to file it under: Things You Do Not Talk About. But the Internet has created a space where people feel comfortable confronting racial issues (usually with a heavy dose of sarcasm). It’s the sort of freedom that started with online comment boards and gave way to lighthearted memes such as “Stuff White People Like.”

And let’s not forget the “[Expletive] Girls Say” videos that went viral (perhaps, too viral) last year. Race played a prominent role in parodies like “[Expletive] Black Girls Say” and “[Expletive] White Girls Black Girls.” Lena Waithe, one of the producers behind “Dear White People,” wrote the former video.

Simien, Waithe and fellow producers, Angel Lopez and Ann Le, all with roots in L.A.-based film production, found that in addition to promoting their project, the Internet helped launch a conversation around it, even in the project’s early days on Twitter, according to Simien.

“It was resonating with people and people got it,” he said. “People of all races seemed to embrace it and get the joke.”

Simien says his project was heavily influenced by director Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and “School Daze,” both of which examined race in a provocative and frighteningly honest way. It has been more than 20 years since those films hit theaters.

Simien hopes “Dear White People” will help fill a void in Hollywood and thinks audiences are eager to see an “art house movie that deals with race in this way.”

If the campaign’s supporters are any indication, Simien might be right.

“I cannot believe how many people are supporting the movie and campaign, he said. “I can't wait to make the movie.”

Warning: This video contains offensive language.


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