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10.30.14 8:23 AM ET

‘Dear White People’: How An Ex-Publicist’s Twitter Became One of the Year’s Most Important Films

Institutional racism. Stereotypes. Blackface. White privilege. Justin Simien’s satire Dear White People tackles all these issues and more. Here’s how it made its way to the screen.

The signs are everywhere—if you want to see them. White suburbanites getting dolled up in blackface for Ray Rice Halloween costumes. Bill O’Reilly tussling with Jon Stewart over the mere existence of white privilege. Persistent rumors that Darren Wilson will not be indicted for putting six bullet holes in teenager Michael Brown. The Hannity-esque delusion of a post-racial America is ill-informed at best and bigoted at worst.

Within this maelstrom of mendacity lies an urgent film that dares to convey the black experience in America: Dear White People. Now playing in theaters nationwide, Justin Simien’s satire offers a searing indictment against those too myopic to see just how difficult it can be for a black person to navigate historically white institutions. The film is set at Winchester University, a fictional Ivy League college, and traces the divergent paths of four African-American students. On the surface, they seem like lazy archetypes straight out of a Tyler Perry movie: the militant female, the nerdy outsider, the Adonis-like jock, and insecure, “passing”-obsessed princess. As the story unfolds, however, they reveal themselves to be much more than the broad sketches we’ve ascribed them.

“We need to get to the point in the media where the black experience isn’t only portrayed as heroic, as in the case of Obama, Oprah, and Beyoncé, or terribly tragic, like what happened in Ferguson,” says Simien. “What that tells black people—and what it tells white people about black people—is that we have to be these God-like perfect beings, or else it’s just tragedy and decay on the urban streets of America. There’s no humanity in either of those images. We’re rarely treated as human beings that are just as complicated as anybody else.”

The “militant” one is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) who hosts a radio show on campus called “Dear White People” where she drops cultural truth-bombs, e.g. “Dear White People: The ‘Single Ladies’ dance is dead. Please turn off your web cams and go on about your lives.” But it turns out the radical image she’s cultivated for herself is just a mask for her insecurities over being mixed race. She even sleeps with a white guy in secret. The jock, Troy (Brandon P Bell), is the son of Winchester’s black provost (Dennis Haysbert) who dates the school president’s jungle feverish daughter and hides his “blackness” by smoking weed and scribbling rap lyrics on the crapper. The assimilation-fiend, Coco Conners (Teyonah Parris), harbors shame over her dark skin and black-sounding name, Colandrea. And the geek, Lionel (Tyler James Williams), is a closeted gay who finds himself alienated by blacks and whites.

All four characters stories intersect at the white-run humor magazine’s “unleash your inner Negro” Halloween party on campus where all the white students show up in blackface. A riot ensues.

Dear White People’s journey to the screen began in 2006. Simien was a senior at Chapman University, a college in Orange County, California, and had written a draft for a script called 2 Percent about the black experience at a largely white college mirroring his own.

“Me and my college friends talked about how being a black man with ambition, particularly one like us who’d left the communities they grew up in, required a bit of race-toggling—whether it’s blacking it up for a group of black people you want to impress, blacking it down for a group of white people you want to impress, or just answering the phone differently. We were constantly talking about things that were really irritating and kind of funny about the black experience, but hadn’t been shown yet onscreen.”

Once he graduated in 2006, Simien took a job as a publicity assistant at Rogue, then a division of Focus Features. After that, he went over to join the Paramount Pictures digital publicity team, working on creative ad campaigns for films like Paranormal Activity. He eventually ended up at as a digital producer for Participant Media. All the while, though, he was working on his script.

The climactic blackface party was written in sometime in late 2009, and was inspired by Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. He soon decided to remove it, deeming it “a little unfair” to the movie’s white antagonists. Then, in Feb. 2010, the “Compton Cookout” happened. White students from UC San Diego held a “ghetto-themed” party to “honor” Black History Month that required the kids to dress up as outrageous black stereotypes, including women as “ghetto chicks.”

“For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks—Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes,” the invitation read.

There was understandable outrage.

“My script was called 2 Percent and I took it as a sign that the 2 percent black population on that campus threatened to boycott,” says Simien. “These were not kids trying to make black people feel bad. To them, they were being ironic and funny, and proving how ‘liberal’ they were. That to me was so fascinating.”

“It seems to be symptoms of us thinking we live in a post-racial space and, to me, feels like growing pains,” adds Thompson, who plays Samantha.

That cultural and racial disconnect inspired Simien to start the Twitter handle @DearWhitePeople in March 2010. The profile name read ‘Samantha White,’ and he began testing the waters:

After almost two years, between YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, “Dear White People” had amassed, by Simien’s estimation, “tens of thousands” of followers. Simien hosted a table read of his script in early 2012, and was so inspired he decided to cut together a concept trailer for Dear White People which he posted online. The response was so positive that he started an Indiegogo campaign to help finance the film.

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“I figured plopping a multi-protagonist rumination on black identity on an executive’s desk was going to be a dead end,” he says with a chuckle.

He thought the film would raise about $5,000 of its $25,000 goal, but it ended up reaching $25,000 in the first three days. Overall, the Indiegogo campaign netted over $41,000, and since people kept donating after it ended, reached about $50,000 total.

By that point, Simien quit his job and used the funds to secure a casting director, Kim Coleman, and spent over a year finding the right actors. They also attracted Stephanie Allain as an executive producer, who began pitching it to various studios. At one point, it was close to being made into a TV movie. Finally, after over a year of pitching (and YouTubing, and Facebooking, and Tweeting), Code Red Films swooped in and helped finance the project. It was shot at the University of Minnesota and a few Los Angeles locations in 19 days on a budget “just north of $1 million,” according to Simien.

Dear White People premiered on Jan. 18 at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to critical raves, eventually earning Simien a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The same day as the film’s premiere, an all-white fraternity at Arizona State University got in hot water for hosting an “MLK Day” party featuring kids in blackface.

A big theme of Simien’s film is the impact popular culture has on perpetuating these negative stereotypes of black Americans.

“The media is incredibly responsible,” says Simien. “The culture that we live in tells us the limits of what we can be. If Spike Lee hadn’t come before me, I wouldn’t have known I could tell a story about people of color in an artful way that wasn’t about slavery or aspirational people falling in love in New York. Culture has a profound impact on people.”

Now, when it comes to the commodification of culture, some odd examples of late are young white women like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift twerking their way through music videos.

“To me, Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift deciding to twerk isn’t offensive,” says Parris, who plays Coco. “What is offensive is having a bunch of African-American women with big booties in your videos twerking as props.”

Simien adds, “By the time Taylor Swift was doing the twerk in the ‘Shake It Off’ video, I wasn’t offended anymore. Nicki Minaj said the most brilliant thing about twerking: ‘It’s always been true that when a white person does a black thing it’s the most exciting thing in the world, and when a black person does a black thing, it’s not that exciting.’ That’s the most frustrating thing, this Columbusing—this idea that when a white person discovers a black thing for other white people, this white person is then credited with discovering the thing.”

The reactionary right-wing reaction to Dear White People based, it seems, purely on its title and promotional materials, also bothered Simien. When the trailer debuted in June, Drudge Report picked up the link to it and labeled it an “Obama Generation Satire.”  

“Drudge Report picked us up, which prompted a flood of people who hadn’t seen the film to come to our IMDB page and give it one star,” says Simien. “It’s so frustrating because that sends a subtle message that the voice of the minority can’t be heard without thinking you’re insulting someone.”