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Identity Versus Self: Justin Simien on "Dear White People"

"Dear White People" is a film that follows a quartet of African-American college students as they try to negotiate their seemingly different but ultimately intertwined ways through the predominantly white campus of their Ivy League university. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is the campus firebrand who has a radio show entitled "Dear White People" in which she humorously calls out whites for the unconscious behaviors that are almost as insulting as outright racism. Troy (Brandon P. Bell) is the far smoother and self-assured type whose seemingly effortless rise to the top is stymied when he unexpectedly loses the election for student leader of the school's one predominantly black residence hall to former girlfriend Sam. Coco (Teyonah Parris) is a fame-obsessed type who attempts to position herself as an alternative campus voice in the hopes of attracting the attentions of a reality show that is casting on campus. As for budding journalist Lionel (Tyler James Williams), he is struggling to find himself despite the double-outsider status of being both black and gay. Among the Caucasian faces in the mix are Gabe (Justin Dobies), the genial RA who is also Sam's boyfriend, a fact that she is desperately trying to keep secret for fear of how it will look to others and Kurt (Kyle Gallner), the obnoxious and privileged campus alpha male who is the son of the university's president and the head of the school's celebrated humor magazine that is preparing to throw an "African-American" party that encourages white students to come as their favorite stereotypes and which leads to a campus race riot. (If that last detail seems a little too much, please note that the end credits for the film include an array of startling photos taken at numerous real-life gatherings along those lines that have occurred on campuses across the country over the last few years.)

Wait, did I neglect to mention that the film in question is also a comedy? Instead of using the material in the service of an earnest, well-intentioned but ultimately dull melodrama, debut writer-director Justin Simien has instead taken an overtly satirical approach that allows him to tackle the charged material in a way that allows him to deal with some hard truths about the contemporary African-American experience without getting bogged down in deadly dogma. The film is smart and insightful without becoming pedantic, and contains a number of big laughs to boot. By putting his focus as much on the notion of young people trying to discover who they are as individuals as on the racial aspect, he tells a story that can appeal to a wider audience without watering things down in the process. This is an ambitious and ultimately successful work and while it may not quite be, as some of the early reviews have suggested, the next "Do the Right Thing" (it is actually closer to Spike Lee's ridiculously underrated 2000 satire "Bamboozled"), it is certainly strong enough to justify "Variety" naming Simien as one of this year's 10 filmmakers to watch.

For Simien, the release of the film, which opened in New York last Friday and will be expanding throughout the country, marks the end of a long journey that began when he first conceived of the project in 2012 and produced a fundraising trailer that unexpectedly went viral and brought in over $40,000 and included a triumphant premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where he won one of the Special Jury Prizes. This week, while basking in the strong reviews and box-office results of its opening weekend and preparing to introduce "Dear White People" as part of the Chicago International Film Festival, Simien sat down to discuss the issues raised by his movie, the decision to look at them through a comedic perspective and the current state of black filmmaking.

Now that "Dear White People" has finally arrived in theaters this past weekend to strong reviews and box office, what has it been like for you to finally have it out there for the public to see once and for all?

JUSTIN SIMIEN: I am relieved. I guess that for the first time in the entire process, I was finally able to exhale. There was always something coming up next that could go horribly wrong and it has been like that for a long time. "What if no one finances this?" "What if Sundance doesn't accept it?" What if no one picks it up out of Sundance?" "What if we don't open well?" Well, it finally came out and we opened well and I am good. I am happy that critically the film is being well-received and that audiences are receiving it well and are abuzz with questions and conversations. It is a big "Mission Accomplished" and everything after this is like icing on the cake.

What inspired the film and how closely is it inspired by your own collegiate experiences?

It came out of that. The script changed a lot but it started with having several conversations in college about our experiences as black people at a mostly white college versus what was presumed to be our experiences. We all had friends of all races and there were awkward moments and awkward conversations and I just thought that it was a way to say something new about the experience of being a person of color as well as a way to indulge in my love of black smarthouse films that Spike Lee begat but which were also carried out by other filmmakers. It was before my time but I love that there was a time when there were films like "Hollywood Shuffle" and "Love Jones" and "Boyz N the Hood"—all these different stories that were different from each other and different versions of the experience that were all together in the marketplace. I kind of wish that I had been a part of that in a way and it was a way to throw back to that while saying something new.

What governed your decision to approach the material from a more overtly satirical perspective?

It was just always funny to me. I think part of it is that when we were having these conversations—before I considered it to be a satire or considered the school to be a microcosm of the American experience—it was just my experiences on a college campus and they were always funny. When we would tell these stories, they were always hilarious and we laughed about it. To me, it always had a humorous tone to it but as it went from the shitty first drafts that are inevitable for most screenplays into something better and more powerful, I just doubled-down on the decision that the best way to talk about it was satirically. I had seen a lot of the earnest films that had dealt with race and the more dogmatic and earnest that they were, the less they felt like real life. They didn't look like the real racism that I would see in America.

"Do the Right Thing" as a screenplay might seem like a drama but he shot it almost like a comic book with a heightened reality—yelling racial epithets directly into the camera—and it would not have worked and the ending would not have been as powerful if you had spent the entire time just being dragged through the mud. Frankly, if we are going to talk about racial violence, "Fruitvale Station" and "12 Years a Slave" did that really well and I wanted to do something that hadn't been talked about or said. My focus was about identity--the issues of identity and the ways in which identity can complicate our lives. I hadn't seen that in movies, at least not through the lens of being a person of color.

"Do the Right Thing" has been cited a lot in commentary on "Dear White People" but the Spike Lee film that it reminded me of even more was "Bamboozled," his satire on contemporary racial stereotypes that bothered a lot of people when it came out in 2000 but which I still consider to be one of the best and bravest of all his films.

I so agree. It looked so unconventional that it was jarring to people but I loved that movie. It literally makes me laugh and cry—I know that sounds like a cliche but I am moved to tears by the end of that film. The mark of a really great satire is its ability to seem prophetic and I think that the television culture that film predicted really came true in the age of reality television and is a testament to how great it really is.

You were just speaking about how you wanted the film to focus on identity. Can you talk about your approach to exploring questions of identity through your four central characters and the different ways that the negotiate the experience of being black on a mostly white college campus?

I thought that the film was about identity versus self. I thought it would be interesting to talk about something that I think is a human condition—that struggle between who am I versus who people see me as—and talk about it through a black lens because before I could ever ask the question "Who am I?," I had to get through the minutiae of who I am as a black person and who I am as a gay person. I sort of had to answer the questions of identity that were thrust upon me that I wasn't innately asking until the world was asking.

I remember the first time that I realized that being black meant that I wasn't allowed certain things. It was in the fourth grade  and it was who I thought was my best friend not inviting me to his birthday party because I would be the only black kid there. It was the first time I ever felt restricted and it certainly wasn't the last time. I remember the shock of that—that I wasn't having the same human experience as the rest of the kids. I was somehow being held by this identity that was created by somebody else about me. I just thought that was an interesting way of talking about identity that I hadn't seen before and it was an opportunity to say something new about the subject. If the focus of the film is on identity, then anyone can sort of find a way in even though it is through these characters and their experiences.

One of the things that I found interesting about the way that racism is handled in the film is that of the two major white characters, neither one is particularly racist. Gabe, the RA and Sam's clandestine boyfriend, is arguably the single nicest character in the film and Kurt, the alpha-male humor magazine editor, is certainly a boor, but he comes across as an obnoxious equal-opportunity offender who mistakenly sees himself as following in the footsteps of people like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor who would say shocking things as a way of getting at greater truths. Instead, the real racism in the film is embodied by the institution of the school itself and its policies.

Well, that is the way that racism actually works. Yes, there are people who are outwardly racist and say outwardly racist things but more often than not, the kind of racism that affects the daily lives of people is the institutionalized racism, the kind that is baked in—the covert assumptions and the way in which people are subtly left out of access to certain things. That is how is actually works and functions and oftentimes, the conversation comes around to who is to blame and that loses sight of what the real issue is, which is that it is baked into the system. Kurt and even the president of the university, their sin isn't racism—it is a lack of tolerance for the experiences of people who are different from them.

"Color-blind" comes up—people say "Oh, I'm color-blind and therefore can't be accused of racism," but I think that if we are going to have an honest dialogue about racism, we have to admit that people of color are having a different experience. I have different privileges because I am a man and I have to acknowledge that and realize that another person of color who is also a woman is having a different experience than I am. Just saying that black people are inferior, that is not what it looks like anymore.

What kind of response have you received to the potentially controversial plot development involving Sam's secret romance with Gabe?

I have noticed that some audience members have wondered if I am trying to say something globally about black men and white men. I think a lot of that may be that many movies that are about race are dogmatic and they tend to have very clear-cut lessons for the audience to walk away with. I think that Sam's dual life when it comes to her guys—I think that is a real dilemma that a lot of women face. The pressure of whether to pick who the people around me think I should pick or should I pick who I secretly want even though it might be inconvenient for my life and my persona. That is a real struggle and a real thing and I know a lot of people who appreciate that the movie gets into that and articulates that. I also get people who want to make sure that I am not saying anything globally about interracial dating and I think part of that is that films like this dealing with subject matter like this are rare and I think part of it is that audiences have to get used to films that deal with racism in ways that aren't dogmatic or that isn't a morality play.

When you are discussing the film with audiences or looking at the reviews, have you found that there is a difference in the elements that black commentators and white commentators seem to be focusing upon?

I will be honest—I don't like to read every review because I am far too neurotic and I don't want to put myself through the nitpicking of every single review. I do notice that with audiences, laughter does come in different spots and people walk away with different things. I think that for African-American audiences who have experienced in very specific and concrete ways the things that are depicted in the film, I think there is an immediacy to it that is different than it is for a white audience, for whom it is more theoretical. When we have shown the movie on campuses, we get into very specific discussions about how to work as student activists on campus and how to rally up against things that I am not really qualified to give advice on. It is interesting to see audiences take different things away.

How close is the final version of "Dear White People" that is now playing to the version that you saw in your head when you first envisioned it?

It changed a lot. The first version of it was more Altmanesque—it was very slice-of-life and while it was satirical, it wasn't a satire. It followed 7 or 8 other characters and they were all very different—Sam, Troy, Lionel and Coco were all there but there were these 7 or 8 other characters and they all had equal weight and the script was incredibly long. It was meant to be this year-in-the-life-of more so than building to a culminating event that affected everybody. That was the big change over the years—it became more of a satire and it became about something specific. For financial reasons, I felt that it made more sense to focus on four characters—two sets of two opposites—and tell the story in a sort of point-counterpoint way.

You spoke earlier of wishing that you could have been making movies in the time of films like "Do the Right Thing" and "Boyz N the Hood." What are your thoughts about the current state of black filmmaking?

I think we are still in that kind of dichotomy where there are either awards-time movies where you see a black youth slain or a slave or some disenfranchised black person in a tragedy or the springtime romantic comedies for general audiences like "Think Like a Man" or even something like "No Good Deed"—a proven genre film that never really gets into anything complicated. One is for the box office and the other is for awards season but the arthouse stuff—the stuff that tries to talk about the human condition and which try to say something important about us now—you rarely see people of color in those kinds of movies. That is just where my interest lies more than in the others—those core-driven movies that are meant to be about something and where people of color are seen as human beings because they are not these tragic characters or these aspirational types trying to live up to this superhuman ideal of being black, this "Ebony"-cover version  of being black. There is a real power in putting the truthful, complicated and messy versions of us and I would like to see more of that.

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