Justin Simien is careful to use air quotes when he describes his feature directorial debut as a “black film.”
The quotes are fitting when it comes to Simien’s “Dear White People,” which he also wrote. The movie, which opens in select cities on Oct. 17, is a satire that takes sharp aim at questions surrounding identity and what it means to be black — er, “black.”
Simien, 31, started writing the screenplay in 2006, while a student at Chapman University in California. But he grappled with the film’s themes even as a child, attending predominantly white schools in his native Houston.
“I could never really connect to that thing that everyone else was saying was black,” said Simien, while in Washington recently for a screening of the film. “I had my own version of it, and it took me a while to be okay with that and to kind of self-validate my own experiences. And I think making this movie was a big part of that for me.”
The film was a hit at Sundance this year, taking home the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. But “Dear White People” garnered buzz long before it was a feature film. A concept trailer hit YouTube in 2012 and a campaign on crowdfunding Web site Indiegogo raised more than $41,000.
“Dear White People” follows four black students at fictional Ivy League school Winchester University as they navigate their predominantly white campus in the wake of racial unrest following a series of events that culminate in a theme party inviting students to “unleash your inner Negro.”
An early source of tension is a radio show hosted by Samantha White, a biracial student who takes a militant approach to dealing with the campus dynamics. “Dear White People,” she says during one address, “the minimum number of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”
Sam’s fellow students explore their own identities while reacting to her often polarizing viewpoints. There’s Troy, who struggles to meet the expectations of his father, a dean at the school played by Dennis Haysbert. Coco dreams of landing a spot on a reality show, while altering aspects of her personality and personal appearance to appeal to her white classmates. And there’s Lionel, a gay outcast who listens to Mumford & Sons and loves “Star Trek.”
Social media play a strong role in “Dear White People,” and not just on screen. Before filming the concept trailer, Simien tested some of the film’s themes using a Twitter account of the same name. That Twitter account still exists and, lately, has served to keep fans informed about the film’s progress.
The production team has also kept the project’s YouTube channel active, enlisting cast members to film edgy digital shorts in the style of NBC’s “The More You Know” PSAs. One video advises: “If you start a sentence with ‘Not to be racist, but . . .’ well, you probably shouldn’t have started that sentence.” Another offers tips on how to pretend you watch “Scandal” if you (gasp!) don’t.
Lena Waithe, a writer for the Fox series “Bones,” is one of the film’s producers. Waithe was introduced to “Dear White People” when she met Simien in a writer’s group. At the time, Simien was seeing if his script could work in a television format.
“I remember thinking it was really funny and it was really irreverent,” Waithe recalled in a phone interview. “I loved how he was using this fictitious Ivy League school, really as a metaphor for society, and how he could get away with saying certain things and doing certain things with these characters that you probably couldn’t get away with if it was set in the real world and it wasn’t in this heightened reality.”
Winchester isn’t all metaphor. Photos from real-life college parties, with some white students in blackface, appear during “Dear White People’s” closing credits. And Simien said he closely followed recent campaigns that highlighted the experiences of black students at predominately white colleges across the country. In March, he chatted with student activists from Harvard, the University of Michigan and UCLA in a Google Hangout hosted by Colorlines.
“We talked to a few student groups, because for them this isn’t a satire. For them this is like their actual experience, their day-to-day experience,” Simien said.
“I think the movie has a special significance for them and it’s really rewarding as a storyteller to talk to folks like that after the screening and to feel it really connect with their lives and for them to see themselves on screen,” he said.
Simien said it’s not just black audiences who are seeing themselves on screen. This is where the air quotes — “Dear White People” as a “black film”— come into play.
“I love when people, white folks especially, don’t expect to really identify with the black characters, but they do,” Simien said. “I think we all have identity crises throughout our lives. It’s a very universal human experience, so it’s cool that people are able to have that even though the cast is primarily of color.”
Simien said he’s also gotten praise for Lionel, who has what Simien calls “a heroic moment” in the film.
“For whatever reason, gay characters, or characters that deal with sexuality issues, who are black, in ‘black films’ . . . are typically not dealt with with any sort of complexity. They’re exoticized, their being gay is sort of the point,” said Simien, who likes to say that he “came to school Lionel and left as Sam.”
”I certainly had the same experience of being gay and not really seeing a place for myself in popular black culture, but also not totally feeling comfortable within the confines of popular white culture,” Simien said.
This type of storytelling is part of what Waithe calls “the resurgence” — a collective of writers, producers, actors and directors who are challenging traditional Hollywood stories and roles. Issa Rae, who explores her own brand of black identity in the popular Web series “Awkward Black Girl,” makes a cameo in the film. Comedian and “How to Be Black” author Baratunde Thurston, whose 2012 book explored similar themes, also has a blink-and-you-missed it appearance in the film.
“ ‘How to Be Black’ wasn’t the first story to play with the themes it did, things like black authenticity, cultural appropriation, tokenism, and the sometimes-awkwardness of being ‘the black friend,’ ” Thurston said in an e-mail. “Justin’s movie deals with many of these in an even tighter form than my book by keeping it to a college campus setting in a narrow time frame. The focus of ‘Dear White People’ is one of the things I love most about it.”
Waithe said the film offers a new way to talk about a conversation that’s already begun.
“It’s not the kind of movie where you can go in and turn your brain off,” Waithe said. “It’s a movie that will make you laugh, but it will also make you see things in a way you hadn’t before. It will make you think.”
Dear White People is rated R and opens in area theaters on Oct. 17.