DEAR WHITE PEOPLE: New Black-Satire Filmed in MPLS

October 30, 2017


DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (DWP) is a race/identity satire film created by Justin Simien, director and writer based out of Los Angeles, CA, born in Houston, TX.

This film is still currently in the making. Although it is not yet finished, it has already gained much popularity and begun to produce a cult following. With a title that is naturally controversial, a lot of people are drawn to the film, curious about the message being portrayed. Getting a chance to meet with Mr. Simien and a couple of the producers on-set, I was surprisingly refreshed when the true meaning behind DWP was revealed.

“Dear White People” is actually the name of a college radio show that is hosted by one of the main characters in the film, Samantha White (Tessa Thompson). Sam is one of four main characters that Simien uses throughout the film to represent major types of “blackness” from a college standpoint in the 21st century.

Sam White is a biracial female who has chosen to identify with her black side. Throughout the film she displays bold and aggressive behavior against racial bias in her school. Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell) has found a middle ground in the way that he operates within his blackness as he’s learned to socialize with both the white crowd and the black crowd at Winchester University. Colandrea Conners or “Coco” (Teyonah Parris) chooses to neglect her blackness and identify with the white crowd even though she is a black female. And Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), cool in his own right finds an interest in sci-fi and is also a homosexual. He finds trouble fitting in with either crowd at the school.

Together these characters not only display a wide spectrum as far as different forms of blackness in the 21st century, but also the universal struggle of finding one’s identity, period. “It’s about being an ‘other’, and feeling like an ‘other’ in a large community…For me, I’m obviously not a black man I’m a Latino man, and I related. When I read his script I went oh yeah, I totally relate,” said Angel Lopez, producer.

It was a Friday evening and I had just received the okay to visit the set of Dear White People to cover the making of this film at a mansion location in St. Paul, Minnesota. When I arrived on set, the cast was about to shoot one of the most anticipated scenes of the film , when the white students at the University throw a ‘black-face’ themed party. As I saw some members from the cast, white boys portraying students, walk past me wearing afro wigs and brown paint covering their faces, I became immersed in a situation where I found myself getting a bit uncomfortable . I felt an innate inner response to put my guard up in order to protect own dignity as a black woman in the midst of cultural mockery. While the entire situation was fictitious and nothing to actually react to, my response was a testament to just how real and subconscious the fight for one’s identity really is. “Justin is really trying to capture what the new Jim Crow looks like. It’s subtle, it’s quiet, it’s subliminal and it’s really scarier than what it used to be…” said Waithe.

I spoke to Simien, Waithe and Lopez on one of the last days that they would be shooting in Minnesota. Lopez estimated “…about 98 percent of the film is shot in Minnesota.’ The team utilized the University of Minnesota campus and other prime locations in the Twin Cities to capture the fictitious Winchester University, the primary setting of the film.

I personally think it is incredibly special that the location of DWP just so happened to be on the campus of the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities where the exact struggle they are aiming to portray is pertinent to many students who often feel misrepresented and misunderstood as a result of their race within a predominantly white community. This decision was not made intentionally because of this parallel, but I think it raises many issues regarding race and identity that may have remained otherwise unheard in our area.

After intricate conversation with Waithe, Lopez and Simien I found that, despite the title, this film is actually made with its entire audience in mind, not just black people. “Justin is looking at the film from an identity point of view, not just race. This allows the film to be more relatable for anyone…” said Waithe. The black-white spectrum was a natural portrayal for the universal search for identity because Simien is writing from his own experience, and his experience has been that of a “black face in a white place,” as he was one of few black students at Chapman University in Orange County, CA where he studied his career in film.

While many are drawn by the film’s polemical tone, a large amount of DWP’s audience are also those that are strongly anticipating the return of true black-satire films. “So many of our fans are white people who either are attracted to this genre of movie coming back; the black story that’s told with the artful, different lens, or people who actually get that it is actually about the human condition, it’s not just about black people…it’s a universal theme,” said Simien.

Talking to Simien he explained how Hollywood has become monotonous as far as the black films being released, “This has been one of the biggest years for black film in a long time. The problem is, you really only get one of 3 types of black movies,” said Simien as he went on to describe the categories as: Civil Rights/ slave era movies, movies that represent the urban struggle of black youth or, of course, the romantic comedy. This is not necessarily bad, but there is an entirely different genre of black film that Simien is looking to revive.

Simien has been numerously compared to famous black director of the 90s, Spike Lee. Movies like Do the Right Thing and School Daze were beloved because of the honest, creative and authentic portrayal of black life that was shown on the silver screen. “I feel like my job as a story teller is to tell the truth. That’s my job…If a story holds a mirror up to its audience that I think it’s done it’s job, and the rest of it falls into place,” explained Simien.

Taking his own experience and attacking the issue of racial anxiety with a specific angle on identity, Simien has placed himself at the front end of a new wave of black filmmaking. His line of attack breaks down hegemonic expectations of black produced art, and with unabashed truth in his creation, Simien will inevitably inspire countless people.

“The world is really going to be pleasantly surprised when this movie comes out.” –Waithe

Written by: Tiffany Trawick