Filmmaker Justin Simien has a message for white people and his new film is not holding anything back. Dear White People is a satire created with the intent of waking people up and starting a real conversation about the new generation of racism in America. The story takes place at a fictional Ivy League college amid a heated racial uproar. The film’s lead character, Samantha White (Tess Thompson) hosts a radio show called “Dear White People,” her tongue in cheek way of shedding light on the racially divided culture on campus. She says on air, “Dear white people, the number of black friends required of a white student to not seem racist has been raised to two. (Weed dealers don't count.)”
Incendiary at best, racist in its own right? Maybe. Nothing is off limits in this film and black or white, it takes aim. But don’t be fooled by the title. The message is for everybody.
The film took an incredible route to creation, starting off with a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, getting picked up by a production studio and winning prizes at Sundance and San Francisco film festivals. It was also selected for the New Directors/New Films program in New York City. Now, it’s opening week and the stage is set for Dear White People to make the splash it seems destined to. I chatted with one of the films stars and my good friend Marque Richardson, who plays Reggie in the movie, and talked to him about his experience working on the project.
Serena Watson: Can you sum up the film’s plot for me in your own words?
Marque Richardson: It’s basically this sly, satire that follows four black students at an Ivy League college campus and each character explores a stereotype of the African-American race. So a race riot breaks out when this white fraternity throws a blackface, African-American themed party. You hear about this happening across the country, white students in college are throwing blackface parties. Which has always happened.... But now that we have the internet and social media people are more aware of it.
SW: How long did it take to film Dear White People and where did you shoot?
MR: It took about a month. We shot from August to September in Minneapolis, Minnesota at various locations out in Minneapolis. A couple scenes were shot at the University of Minnesota. There was a women’s college that we did a lot of interior shots at and we shot all the exterior stuff on University of Minnesota’s campus.
SW: So this film had a smaller budget and was a smaller project but you guys are winning awards and getting people talking. You even won an award at Sundance. What was that experience like?
MR: For me anyway, it’s like a numbing sensation. In the sense that, we were all friends before we shot this thing. So [when we were filming] it felt like we were at summer camp. We had a good time, we went to camp and then we came home. We knew there that it was something special. Especially because of the following it had from the Indiegogo campaign and social media. It was a grassroots movement. And we wanted to do it justice. Everyone went there and we did our best work. We just left it on the field. And just seeing the response that it has gotten from Sundance to… all of them. It’s been amazing. In the sense that, to have your work be appreciated is a great feeling. It just feels like a dream.
SW: That’s really dope. How did people start hearing about this film? How did the movement spread?
MR: It raised a lot of money during the Indiegogo campaign and that garnered a lot of attention. Justin, the director, went on CNN and that video went viral and drew more attention. It showed that there was an audience for this conscious type of movie. So from there that’s where it drew the interest of other studios. Another small production company called Code Red decided to help produce Dear White People.
SW: Speaking of the audience, of course you have a very strong following from African-Americans. But in terms of other races, why should they see this film?
MR: Other races should see this film because it’s actually a story for everyone. And it’s funny, and it’s fun, and it’s smart. The film itself has a mirror effect. That’s been the most interesting response that I’ve experienced just from being at the different screenings of the film. Especially at Sundance where the audience is so diverse. When we had our showing, there were like 1200 or 1300 people and it was sold out. But the majority of the people were white people. We had people of all different races, all different ages, all different backgrounds, coming up and telling us that they identified with one of the characters. You see yourself in these characters. It’s a universal story. The title “Dear White People” is just to be controversial and get people talking; to start a conversation. But its not like it’s a black film. It’s a controversial film, or title anyway. But it’s a different experience than the title or what you think it’s going to be.
SW: You talked about the film being a mirror. How close to the film was your own college experience, if at all?
MR: I didn’t realize that I lived this until I was Sundance getting ready to do an interview with Democracy Now. And I was sitting there with Justin and then it was like an “Ah ha” moment that hit me out of nowhere. And I was like “Wait a minute… I lived this!” I’ve had an entrepreneurship professor tell me “I’m so glad you made it out of the hood.” [Laughs] What are you talking about? But how much of the film did I experience at USC? All of it. My character is more of a black militant. I wasn’t a black militant. I had a lot of different friends. But yeah, it was pretty dead on.
SW: Got you. So why do you feel the themes and messages in Dear White People are important and need to be heard?
MR: Some people think that we’re in a post racial America…We’re not. I think the most important thing that people should take away from the film is that it’s okay to be themselves and to be unique and to be comfortable with that. Not to feel the need to be confined to the norm or what society expects you to be.
SW: Of course such a strong message and strong characters are going to create a reaction. Have you, the filmmakers or any other cast members experienced any negativity as a result of the film?
MR: Oh, I mean… people have thrown negativity. I haven’t received any of it. People talk shit all the time, especially on YouTube and the message boards. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. But that’s what it was meant to do. It was meant to spark a reaction. It was created to make the audience to feel some type of way. So yes, there was tons of negativity. There’s also tons of positivity. But it’s all a conversation. And that’s the point of film, to create a conversation. And the negativity hasn’t affected my career or any of the other cast members.
SW: Right, people are talking. I know that Common tweeted about the film. What were the most memorable reactions that you’ve gotten from famous or non-famous people?
MR: For me, it was P. Diddy, he’s one of my idols. So, when he tweeted about it I was like “ohhh! That’s dope!”
SW: What’s next for Marque? What other projects do you have coming up?
MR: I’m working on this indie film called “Dating Daisy.” And a couple things that I’m producing myself. One project in particular called “The Come Up” -- it’s a mockumentary.
Entertainment // March 24, 2014
Hollywood is much like playing the tables in Las Vegas. Success takes a touch of good fortune and a great deal of skill. Lena Waithe has both. A Chicago native, this Writer/Producer has taken the LA scene by storm. Just this past year, her film “Dear White People” graced Sundance audiences, her web-series “Hello Cupid" charmed small screen viewers, and she dropped a preview of her upcoming series “Twenties”– on which she’s partnered with Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Productions. And just this past weekend “Dear White People” was acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside Pictures. Waithe’s future is bright and she’s been sure to bring fellow creatives and close friends along on the journey. After returning from Sundance’s whirlwind, which she self-described as “life changing,” Waithe took a few moments to chat with me about her creative vision.
MW: At what point did you realize you were a writer?
LW: I knew I wanted to be a television writer when I was 7. I saw a different world and I thought, whatever this is, I want to be a part of it. I was a child with a vision – always a big reader. I loved writing and television. So, this combined my favorite things.
I studied all the greats and great television can transcend time. It’s one of the reasons I take such pride in what I do.
MW: Is there a common thread in the stories you tell?
LW: Honestly, I think I’m really good at writing female relationships. Whether they be familial, romantic, platonic, or messy. I like writing about the relationships that women have with each other.
MW: If you could accomplish one thing with your voice, what would it be?
LW: To do what A Different World did for me, for someone else - allow people to see a better version of themselves and help them realize that the world is bigger than their backyard. A big thing too, is that I’d like to hold up a mirror to reflect the faces that are looking at it. I really want people to feel a connection to the characters that I write.
MW: Where do you think current programming is lacking in that regard?
LW: I think there’s a lot of aspirational stuff, which is fine. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t require characters to look inward. Usually, when you see a show that’s well done – it has a great impact because it’s really about flawed characters that are self-aware and are really trying to improve themselves. It’s about them trying to be better people. And I think that’s every human being’s journey. That’s why people hook into these characters more than these glossy characters with these fabulous lives.
MW: What creatives have helped influence your process?
LW: A person who really is my all-time hero is Susan Fales-Hill. She started out as an intern on The Cosby Show and Dr. Cosby thought she’d be a great fit for A Different World. I got a chance to sit down and have coffee with her. She’s very classy, and played a huge role in setting the stage for Mara Brock Akil and Shonda Rhimes. She has influenced my whole career. When we finally met, it was full-circle moment for me.
MW: What has been the most difficult part of your career and how did you overcome it?
LW: The difficult part is writing and rewriting bad scripts when you first start. That’s the hardest part. Everything you do isn’t going to be as great as you want it to be – it’s just not. That process of learning how to take notes and trying to find your voice – that’s hard. All this stuff about the industry, everyone is going to have a tough time. This is a hard business period. But to me the hard part is the internal journey to continue to go on and become the artist you want to be.
LW:Be great in whatever it is that you do. If you aren’t great at it, then everything you’re doing now should be working towards becoming great. When you’re great, good things will happen.
To those of you who jumped ahead to find out what’s next for Ms. Waithe, she kept things close to the chest. Good news: she says that great things are “brewing,” "Twenties" has found a home and Justin Semien ("Dear White People") will be involved, and there’s a secret project in the works with Issa Rae. It’s nice to know that the house doesn’t always win.
Follow Lena on Twitter: @hillmangrad