When a concept trailer for a would-be feature film called “Dear White People” hit YouTube last year, it was met with its fair share of questions.
Was this a new generation’s answer to Spike Lee’s “School Daze”? Was it necessary? And (as some viewers asked on social media and in online comments) was it racist?
Now, the main question seems to be: When is it coming out?
Director Justin Simien and the team behind the film finally have an answer. “Dear White People” is one of 16 feature films that will premiere as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition next month. Touted as “a satire about being a black face in a white place,” “Dear White People” follows four black students at an Ivy League college and the events that unfold after white students throw an African American themed party.
Acceptance to Sundance is the latest achievement for the project, which gained buzz in June 2012 after the team launched an Indiegogo campaign geared toward turning Simien’s screenplay into a feature film. The trailer, combined with a cheeky Tumblr and Twitter account proved a successful recipe — the campaign well exceeded its $25,000 goal, raising more than $41,000.
In March, Indiewire named “Dear White People” Project of the Year. Simien, 30, was recently named as one of Variety’s “10 Directors to Watch,” an annual list that has previously included Ben Affleck and Christopher Nolan. “It’s crazy,” Simien says of the project’s distinctions. “It’s my first film.”
That doesn’t mean that questions around the film’s intent and the way it deals with race, have stopped. Nor have the comparisons to Lee’s 1988 cult classic, which examined biases around skin tone and hair within the African American community.
It’s an exciting comparison for Simien, who said he idolizes Lee, the director known for exploring race — often controversially — in films such as “Do The Right Thing” and “Bamboozled.” For “Dear White People,” the emphasis is on racial identity. “This film isn’t about “white racism,” or racism at all,” reads a description on the film’s Web site. “It’s about the difference between how the mass culture responds to a person because of their race and who they understand themselves to truly be.”
To dismiss the film or its admittedly provocative title as racist is to miss the point, said Simien.
“There was actually already a great deal of commentary about this idea of reverse racism baked into the script,” Simien said when reached by phone earlier this week. When some viewers accused the trailer of being racist “it just made it feel more poignant,” he said.
To wit, the film takes its name from a radio show started by one of the main characters and the resulting controversy. “Black and white characters are on both sides of the argument,” Simien said. “Their disagreement over that really kicks off the movie.”
The production team met with several studios to discuss backing the project, but ultimately decided to produce it independently. And while Simien said they got “great feedback,” the experience also highlighted some of the challenges associated with getting black films made.
This year has been a notable one for black filmmakers, from the Oscar buzz around Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” to Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, “Fruitvale Station,” which won prestigious prizes at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals.
“It was so exciting to see that black filmmakers are being celebrated and thought of as auteurs,” said Simien, who praised both films. “I do think that the industry is still a bit caught up in repeating the same genres.”
Simien said he thinks “Dear White People” is “opening up a dialogue about a lot of issues” and that viewers will respond to its satirical nature and an art-house aesthetic that gives nods to some of Simien’s favorite directors including Lee, Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick.
“I think that’s what some of our fans are responding to,” he said. “It really is just something that Hollywood forgot could exist.”