‘Dear White People’ Director Justin Simien Talks Big-Screen Debut, Tyler Perry, and Spike Lee’s Influence
Michael Rowe

The film Dear White People (out today) takes a satirical look at race relations in “post-racial” America. Set on the fictional Chapman University campus, DWP follows a colorful cast of outspoken characters as they navigate what exactly it means to be Black in the Obama age. The film’s no-holds-barred approach has drawn the expected comparisons to Spike Lee’s School Daze. What does the director Justin Simien think of the comparisons? He’s flattered. In a way. He spoke with ESSENCE.com on the eve of the film’s release.

Everyone’s going to ask if Spike Lee is a major influence. How do you respond?
He is such a huge influence on me. I’d say that his visual style is certainly a part of that, but his biggest influence on me is that he tackled stories about people of color as a person of color, with an artful lens. His movies always had an art house sensibility to them, and they weren’t afraid to take on complicated material from multiple viewpoints. I remember being a kid, a film student, being so dazzled that you could have movies like that, and have them deal with Black issues, and Black life, and Black people. We weren’t shot as so beautifully as he shot us beforehand, really, and for me it was opening that passageway in my brain, ‘I can do that too.’

Has Spike said anything yet?
He hasn’t said anything, and the funny thing is we used the same casting director. I know he knows about it. [The Best Man director] Malcolm Lee saw it, and we had a conversation about it. [Spike] is an idol, so I’m kinda afraid to hear from him at the same time.

Recently, the New York Times was criticized for trying to compare Viola Davis to Kerry Washington in that controversial article. Viola’s argument was, ‘Why are you comparing me to Kerry Washington? Is it because we’re both African-American?‘ she asked. Do comparisons to Spike fall into the same category, or is there real alignment?
It’s flattering, and it’s helpful, until it’s not helpful. I’m sure Spike was also very sensitive about his brand, his vision, his point of view. He’s going to see the film, and I don’t know if he’s going to draw the same conclusion, so it’s a tricky thing. But I’m not mad at it. There are worse things. They could have said I was the next …I don’t know. It could have been somebody else.

The Times also said you’re updating notions of Black identity. Was that your intention?
My intention was to have a conversation about identity itself, truly. I wanted to do that through a Black lens, and present a story about people of color. Ultimately, what I think is the movie speaks to the universal human condition, and the fact that our identities and our selves are oftentimes in conflict, and it’s difficult to find the harmony between the two, and that’s made doubly more difficult when you’re a person of color, and you’re walking through the world and you’re having to wade through everyone else’s feelings and presumptions about you. Also, I knew that in doing that I was also going to be bringing different kinds of images of Black people to the screen, because there’s no way to do that story and not have complicated, interesting, articulate, varied characters, which unfortunately are still short in supply in cinema. It was fun for me to represent a different aspect of Black life, even though that wasn’t the total focus of it.

You have a little commentary about Tyler Perry in the film, and you’re very bold about it. Has anyone said anything?
People bring it up, but the thing is, we’ve got to get out of this idea that a movie is a mouthpiece. He’s brought up in the film because that is the conversation that a lot of people are having, and because, for instance, Sam (played by Tessa Thompson), in the film, is both a part of defending Tyler Perry, and not. Part of that is because, even if we’re lucky and the movie does really well, the same thing will happen to us. It’s now this is what people think of when they think of Black, and people who aren’t whatever that is start to get ancy and frustrated, and say, ‘Why is every version of us look nothing like me?’ It’s really about gatekeepers. Yeah, Tyler Perry is a Black man who was able to buy an island because he accurately figured out who his audience was, and gave them exactly what they wanted all the time.

Were people in your camp afraid of the title, Dear White People?
Yes and no. I think most people got that the title was really good for the movie, even if it had its dissenters. The people that weren’t into, or at least were talking about it, helped build the buzz. The people against it made the people for it even more passionate of why they were into it. It helped. I wanted people to talk about it, and come to the movie ready to intellectually engage with the movie. I think it’s impossible to come to a movie called Dear White People to turn your brain off.

Are you already working on your next project?
Yeah, I’m halfway into my next feature film. I also really think Dear White People needs to be on TV, so I’m trying to make that happen. I wrote a Dear White People book for Simon & Schuster. I’m still a little bit in Dear White People land, and I think it belongs on TV, and when this is the moment to try to make that happen. The Dear White People eBook is out right now, but it’ll going to hit stores around October 28th. It’s gorgeous. We have this really great illustrator. It’s a tongue in cheek instructional. It’s like a survival guide.

In the movie you use a jazz reference called “the ooftah.” What was that?
Charlie Parker and his group, the Bebop guys, referred to people like Louis Armstrong as ooftahs, because they were doing jazz for white people. Nowadays we don’t even think about it, and it’s just beautiful, and we listen to it, but that style of jazz that was more melodic and more sing songy, and easier to follow. That was what white people were into, and Black people were into bebop, the hard jazz. You had to think about what they were doing. They called them an ooftah, because it was another way of saying a Bojangles, when somebody was the taking this beautiful Black music and serving it up to the white audience.

Dear White People opens in select cities today, and nationwide on October 24.