Filmmaker Justin Simien’s debut flick hits theaters this weekend: it’s called “Dear White People,” and it’s a funny and provocative movie about a group of black students struggling to define their identities in a mostly white private university. It’s already generated a ton of interest in advance of its release — at Sundance, it won him a special jury award for breakthrough talent. And it turns out he’s pretty good at telling our listeners how to behave, too.
Rico Gagliano: Justin, welcome. Do you get a medal, by the way, from the Sundance jury?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Does Robert Redford make you coffee after you win that prize? Like, what’s…
Justin Simien: He didn’t make me coffee. He made me a nice chamomile tea….
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, of course.
Rico Gagliano: Nice.
Justin Simien: …He rubbed my feet, it was really sweet…
Rico Gagliano: Wow.
Brendan Francis Newnam: “The Redford rub-down.” I’ve heard of that.
Justin Simien: … That’s what they call it. And it’s lovely, actually.
Brendan Francis Newnam: So, let’s talk about your movie, “Dear White People”. You started writing this movie because in school, you found yourself in this same situation as these characters. You’ve called it “being a black face in a sea of white,” and all these characters deal with that situation differently. Which character were you?
Justin Simien: I definitely started school Lionel.
Rico Gagliano: The shy journalism student.
Justin Simien: Yeah — I was really intimidated by the other black kids in the black student union. They just seemed so much cooler and blacker than me. But I also didn’t quite fit in in the general student population. You know, people hadn’t really spent a lot of face time with black people before, and so there were a lot of educational moments! But by the the time I left, I was much more Sam. I was much more militant. I found my place within the black student union.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Sam is a more activist…
Justin Simien: Yeah, she’s more of the revolutionary in the film.
Rico Gagliano: But you’ve said, actually, that you emerged from college more like Sam… but that that wasn’t really you, either.
Justin Simien: No, no. I think it probably took me until, I think, last year to even begin the process of sort of integrating all of the different personalities in my head.
Rico Gagliano: That’s kind of my question. I mean, the movie deals with that a lot…
Justin Simien: Absolutely.
Brendan Francis Newnam: …Each character in the movie behaves like a different kind of black person, depending on the group that they’re with, and they’re trying to unite all these personalities. How did you do it?
Justin Simien: You know what? I know I said that that happened, but I don’t even know that that’s happening. I made a movie called “Dear White People!” Kind of stepping into being, I guess, a representative for all black people! Which, you know, no one person can be. So I don’t even know if that’s true. Maybe it’ll take me another 10 years.
Brendan Francis Newnam: But the movie makes that clear. I mean, what’s interesting about the movie is you don’t present answers. You ask a lot of interesting questions.
Justin Simien: Yeah.
Brendan Francis Newnam: None of these identities seem to fit right with these folks.
Justin Simien: You’re right — I’m brilliant!
Brendan Francis Newnam: That’s what I was going to say; I think Robert Redford was right.
Rico Gagliano: And that’s the end of our interview!
Justin Simien: Okay, great!
Rico Gagliano: You’re awesome, congrats on the film!
Justin Simien: Hashtag #Justin’sbrilliant.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Wait, was there an arrogant character in the movie? Because I don’t remember that!
Justin Simien: You know what, I’m way too neurotic to have an ego like that. Every time I walk into a screening of the movie, I think, “This is gonna be the one where they turn.”
Rico Gagliano: “Where they figure me out.”
Justin Simien: Yeah!
Rico Gagliano: Welcome to being an artist, I think.
Justin Simien: “This is the one where they throw fruit at the screen!” I don’t know where they’d find fruit, but…
Rico Gagliano: All right, well, speaking of extreme conflict: This movie climaxes at a party that’s thrown by the white-run student humor paper, where attendees are supposed to basically dress up as black stereotypes. Supposedly satirically, but it’s obviously totally offensive. It blew our minds to find out that these kind of parties have happened multiple times on campuses in the last few years.
Justin Simien: Yeah, and there’s some people who see the movie and it like, blows their mind that these things happen, and then there’s other kids — you know, college kids who are kind of going through it now — who see the movie and are like, “I know it’s a satire but this is literally my day-to-day life.” And it’s so shocking. And this is at institutions that you would never expect these sort of shenanigans to be going on.
Rico Gagliano: Exactly, and you researched these shenanigans, so to speak, as you were writing this screenplay. What is going through people’s heads when they throw these parties?
Justin Simien: It’s just a lot of ignorance as to the fact that it was even offensive. I mean, people were genuinely bewildered that anyone took offense because, of course, “We’re not racist! Because, you know, we have a black friend,” or “We voted for Obama,” or whatever the case may be. “I bought the Beyonce album.”
But they don’t feel like they’re racist because they’re in this sort of closed cultural loop, and to them, they’re paying homage, or they’re celebrating, or they’re just kicking back and having fun. I mean, how many questionable Cinco de Mayo parties have we all been to? You know, it’s the same thing.
Rico Gagliano: That’s true.
Justin Simien: I understand the nachos and the guacamole, but why do you have a fake mustache on, sir?
Rico Gagliano: Speaking of bad behavior, we’ve got some questions from our audience. Are you ready to answer these?
Justin Simien: Let’s do it.
So What Are You, Anyway?
Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Ben, via our website. Ben writes:
” I recently moved away from the United States. Whenever I’m at a dinner party, someone always inquires about my race because of my American accent. When I reply I’m Vietnamese — my actual ethnicity — often people look shocked and say I don’t look like it, and that I must be something else. How do I reply?”
Justin Simien: Wow.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.
Justin Simien: There’s nothing more annoying than being asked, “what are you?” You know, people have asked me that question, which I think is hilarious because I’m black, obviously. But then they want to get into it, and I’m like “Yeah, that’s the whole thing about being black, is I have no way of knowing which country the blackness comes from.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, yeah.
Justin Simien: I mean, I think you kind of turn it around on the asker and say, “Well, what are you?” And when they tell you they’re Italian, or Irish, or whatever white people say when you ask them what race they are, you know, you have to make them defend it!
Brendan Francis Newnam: Or you should say, “I don’t think so. Really? I don’t know about that!”
Justin Simien: “I don’t see it…”
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think what’s interesting about this question, too, is that Ben says “I recently moved away from the United States.” Where Ben moved, I think, has implications. Right?
Justin Simien: That’s crucial.
Brendan Francis Newnam: If Ben’s in Vietnam and they’re asking him, because his accent’s different.
Justin Simien: Yeah, if he moved to Vietnam, I got nothing — I won’t even pretend to have advice for that situation! But I think turning the question around is always very effective.
Justified Jealousy and Dorm Strategy
Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. This next question comes from Yolanda in Queens, and she writes:
“I’m currently living in a dorm. My school has a system where rooms are assigned by lottery and I got stuck in a double. I can’t have any company without disturbing my roommate. One of my friends was assigned a single, but doesn’t need it — She has her own apartment and goes over to her significant other’s when she’s at school. Am I justified in feeling this is unfair?”
Justin Simien: Yes. You are justified; you should break into her apartment and have your dates there! But you know, I feel like no dorm situation is ever good.
Rico Gagliano: I was just going to say, this brings back such memories.
Justin Simien: Oh, same. Oh my god, you have no idea.
Rico Gagliano: Oh, do tell.
Justin Simien: I never had a great dorm situation! No offense to anyone I may have lived with.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Where did you go to school?
Justin Simien: I went to school at Chapman University.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Okay.
Justin Simien: And there was a lot of weed smoke in my first year, which is fine, but you know, I found it difficult to do homework. There were like four of us in there.
And I remember one time one of my suitemates challenged me — this blonde, blue-eyed kid — because he felt he was blacker than me because he could Crip walk and I couldn’t.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.
Justin Simien: That was an awkward moment in our shared bathroom.
Rico Gagliano: What is wrong with people?
Justin Simien: I don’t know. I think it’s, you know, it’s life. We’re thrust together. We crash into each other.
Rico Gagliano: It’s part of the learning experience. That’s the other thing that we could say, is that you just deal with it. And you’re learning from college what you’re supposed to learn, which is, you know, in life things are unfair.
Justin Simien: Which is: live alone.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, so there you go, Yolanda. I think the advice is to break into your friend’s single.
Justin Simien: You should totally break in.
Southern Y’all or the Pittsburgh Yinz
Rico Gagliano: Here’s something from Chris in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And keep in mind: North Carolina, this person is from. Chris writes:
“I have a friend who says ‘y’all’ constantly, and she isn’t from the south. What do you think? Is that okay?”
Justin Simien: I am obsessed with this friend. That’s good.
Rico Gagliano: I feel like I see this more and more often. I’m not sure where that comes from, just people saying “y’all” regardless of where they’re from…
Justin Simien: I’m from the south, so I say “y’all.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Wait, but it’s a word that comes in handy, though. “You guys” is gender specific. So maybe it’s just a short cut.
Justin Simien: Yeah.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s kind of like, “Oh, they put ketchup on their eggs in the south, too, and that was a good idea.”
Justin Simien: It was, it is a good idea!
Brendan Francis Newnam: So maybe this is just a good idea.
Justin Simien: But it also depends on how she says it. Like if it’s a really awkward “y’all” and she’s just forcing it? That is a bit irritating. Like: [says it stiltedly] “Hey, y’all!”
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, there’s scenes in your movie where the characters at the all-white, kinda privileged house are speaking with one of the black characters, and they change their language, right?
Justin Simien: That is true. That’s the worst, I have to say. Like, when a well-intentioned, very liberal, nice white person comes up to me and is like, “Whassup, bro?” And I know he does not greet other people like that.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Justin Simien: “You know what, I get that you’re trying to make me feel relaxed and comfortable in your presence…”
Rico Gagliano: “But you’re doing the opposite.”
Justin Simien: “…But it’s offensive, and don’t do that.”
Rico Gagliano: It’s not cool. By the way, one other thing that you could do here, Chris in Chapel Hill, you should start using the Pittsburgh term — I’m from Pittsburgh — and the Pittsburgh version of “y’all” is “yinz.”
Justin Simien: Yinz?!
Brendan Francis Newnam: No!
Rico Gagliano: Yep. If this woman annoys Chris with “y’all,” then he can annoy her with “yinz.”
Justin Simien: I don’t even understand the etymology of “yinz!!” Like, how does it get to be “yinz?”
Rico Gagliano: I think it’s “you ones.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think it’s what you say when you have beer in your mouth and a sandwich in your mouth at the same time.
Justin Simien: Story of my life.
Brendan francis Newnam: Chris, y’all figure it out yourselves.
Give the Gift of a Coffee-Filled Syrup Candle
Brendan Francis Newnam: This next question comes from Tish. Tish writes:
“My boss recently purchased a scented candle that smells like maple syrup…” We should just end right there.
Justin Simien: Done. Quit your job.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yes, exactly: You’re in the right, Tish, you’re in the right.
“The scent is very strong for an office and it gives me a headache, not to mention it smells just awful. She’s super chipper and excited about her candle. Do I say something?”
Justin Simien: “Super chipper” is the most offensive part of this.
Rico Gagliano: Yes — about her candle. Chipper about her maple syrup candle.
Justin Simien: That… oh man, I think you passively aggressively suggest. I think that’s what you do in this situation.
Rico Gagliano: Suggest…?
Justin Simien: “Man, I have a headache. It must be the smell of maple syrup!”
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think you go further: Sabotage the candle. You should break it.
Justin Simien: Oh.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Break the candle. You should spill coffee on the candle.
Justin Simien: Or you replace the candle in the dead of night. That’s a super passive aggressive move: Just suddenly, it’s a different candle.
Brendan Francis Newnam: What would you replace it with?
Justin Simien: I don’t, something with no scent. I feel like anything food-related I can’t have as a scent in my house, because I can’t eat it. Like, that’s not right. If I walk into my house and it smells like cookies, what is the point of that?!
Rico Gagliano: Maybe you could just pile some aspirin on top of the candle so it can’t be lit.
Brendan Francis Newnam: I think Tish needs a new job.
Justin Simien: Yeah, I think the bigger thing here is that Tish is ready to leave.
Rico Gagliano: And we support you in that, Tish.
Justin Simien: Follow your dreams, Tish.
The Delicate Dance of the Grammar Police
Rico Gagliano: Here’s our last question. It comes from Sylvia, via Facebook. We don’t know where she’s from. This kind of has some bearing on the film:
“How do you suggest correcting someone’s bad grammar or incorrect pronunciation of words?”
Coco, one of the characters in your film, corrects someone on the correct use of the term “weave.”
Justin Simien: That’s true. I don’t know, I feel like unless you’re a school teacher…
Rico Gagliano: Yeah.
Justin Simien: I don’t know if you should correct them, you know? I get it, I know it’s annoying to some people but language is fluid and…
Brendan Francis Newnam: But wait, you’re speaking to a public radio audience.
Justin Simien: Oh my god, I’m alienating everyone!
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah, this is what they do. It’s like you’re saying their favorite hobby is wrong.
Justin Simien: Yes. Please come see my movie anyway, but there’s lots of incorrect grammar in my film.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Could you maybe guilt them into seeing your movie some other way?
Justin Simien: Well here’s the thing. If you don’t see it, you’re a racist, so…
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh! Thank you very much.
Justin Simien: … yeah, sorry about that.
Rico Gagliano: Justin Simien, everybody! Thanks for telling our audience how to behave.
Justin Simien: Thanks, guys.