Dear White People At Emerson

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • March 25, 2015

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Director Justin Simien described his first feature film, Dear White People, as the imagined love child of Spike Lee’s seminal 1989 film Do The Right Thing and Wes Anderson’s career-defining The Royal Tenenbaums

To an audience of approximately 80 students and faculty, Dear White People, a critically acclaimed indie film, screened in the Bright Family Screening Room on March 23, with Simien present to take questions after.

The movie follows several black characters in a predominantly white college. Sam White is a film student of mixed race who garners the ire of both students and faculty with her radio program Dear White People. The show and her self-published book Ebony & Ivy (an Ivy League pun on Ebony & Ivory), take a satirical look at the race relations of her college, Winchester University.

Willie Burnley, a junior writing, literature and publishing major at Emerson, said that the movie has a global message that should appeal to any audience, no matter how viewers identify themselves racially, politically or sexually.

“It is a universal story in a lot of ways. Everyone has a label put on them,” said Burnley. “As an African-American, [the film] gives me food for thought on what it means to construct your own identity but to not do it reactionarily.”

As the film progresses, the audience meets several other characters, including Troy, the high-achieving son of the college’s dean, who is told he cannot play into the stereotypes that define his race; Coco, who believes that playing up the racially insensitive traits assigned to black women will finally get someone to notice and love her; and Lionel, the black, gay, nerd who doesn't neatly fit in any of the school’s stereotypes.

“My artistic intention was to comment on the conflict of identity and ourselves,” Simien said during the Q&A.

Although the movie is called Dear White People, Simiens said the title was a bit of a misnomer.

“I don’t think of audience when I make movies. I only think of audiences in the abstract,” said Simien. “But I wanted to talk about identity from the black point of view.”

At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Simien won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent and Best First Screenplay at the 2015 Spirit Awards.

The screening at Emerson was originally scheduled for February, as part of the college’s Black History Month events, but was postponed due to inclement weather. Tessa Thompson, who played Sam White, was initially set to appear, but after the cancellation, Simien was booked instead.

Burnley said he believes the film challenges audiences to look beneath the surface of others’ identities, and see people in more nuanced and complex ways.

“We’re going to start needing to have more empathy for the human beings behind these labels,” said Burnley. “Everyone is trying to make their own stage and do the best they can with what they have.” 

Simien, who identifies himself as a black gay man, said he saw this movie as a chance to explore the many facets that make people who they are and to better understand the people we are not. 

“The movie is an opportunity to get into either the skin of someone who looks like you or someone who doesn’t,” said Simien. “It’s nice when white people can see themselves as black characters. That’s the power of storytelling.”