For the climactic scene in “Dear White People” to work, writer-director Justin Simien had to make his audience — no matter their race — feel really uncomfortable.
The film, out Friday, tells the story of four black students at a largely white, Ivy League-esque fictional college. When the university’s humor club throws a Halloween party with an “urban” theme, the insinuated, subtle racism that pervades the film is suddenly very overt.
“There’s nothing quite like a blackface party to articulate the feeling of seeing yourself projected back to you from an aspect of culture that doesn’t know anything about you,” Simien says. “The experience of seeing black people as interpreted through the eyes of white people can be very unsettling in a lot of ways. I can’t tell you what it feels like to watch a McRib commercial. The best I can do is put in cinema this very real thing that happens on college campuses and make you viscerally feel what that feels like. That scene is intentionally supposed to make you feel bad, because that’s how it feels.”
The message of Simien’s Indiegogo-boosted debut feature goes beyond “blackface is a bad idea. YES, ALWAYS.” Instead, Simien says, “it’s about the age-old conflict of identity vs. self, and I happen to be talking about that from a black point of view.”
The four main characters all start as retreads of stock black characters audiences are used to seeing on screen: a militant activist, a preppy guy, a fashionista and a nerd.
“In mainstream culture, people of color are not really represented as complex,” Simien says. “There are these sort of archetypes, and I wanted to represent those archetypes at the beginning of the film that slowly get dismantled.”
“Dear White People” isn’t just about being black in a white world — it’s also about being black in a black world in a white world.
“It’s really about toggling between the communities,” Simien says. “There are assumptions about me as a black man within the black community and assumptions about me as a black man within the white community, and the dance between the two — that awkward middle space — was the wellspring from where the stories came from.”
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