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Q&A: 'Dear White People' director Justin Simien

Justin Simien, director of upcoming movie, "Dear White People," is photographed in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, September 24, 2014. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images) Justin Simien, director of upcoming movie, "Dear White People," is photographed in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, September 24, 2014. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Writer and director Justin Simien has been getting plenty of attention since his debut feature, "Dear White People," debuted at Sundance in January — and snapped u the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent. The film takes a fun, satirical look at race relations on a contemporary Ivy League campus and has sparked a lot of conversations — and more than a few Spike Lee comparisons.

Can you sum up how the past, let's say, nine months of your life have felt?

It's been weird, man. (laughs) It's been nine years on this project in particular, and for it to come together and for people to be actually interested in talking to me and talking about the movie and reacting to it, it's kind of weird to take in. But it's cool and it's very gratifying, especially to see the conversations — at least the positive conversations — that the movie provokes in people that have actually seen it.
What about some of the more negative conversations?

Most of the negative stuff comes from people who haven't seen the movie, people who are just reacting to the title of it or what they think the movie might be about it. But I think my favorite explanation from it is from this woman named Rachel J. Watkins who's a professor who said that when people are confronted by the complaints or thoughts or feelings of the minority or the other, they have to sort of go through the stages of grief. And some people tend to stay in anger and denial a little bit longer than we hope for them to, but at least they've begun the process. So I can only hope that's what it is that I'm seeing. Because when you're on the Internet, people can be kind of vicious.
Even if they know who you are, they can be kind of vicious.

Well, they know who I am. I have no idea who they are. Their icon is just, I don't know, Raven-Symone smoking a cigarette. There's no way to tell who these people are. (laughs)
What do you think of the possibly somewhat reductive Spike Lee comparisons?

I mean, it is lazy, but I have to say it's also really flattering because Spike's my hero, and the movies they're referencing, "School Daze" and "Do the Right Thing," are iconic films for me as a filmmaker and as a black person who likes movies. The movie is very referential, I kind of make no bones about that, but I don't think people are comfortable saying, "Oh, this is the new Bergman" — which I'm not, by the way. But I think it naturally occurs to people that filmmakers of color go in one category, and gay filmmakers and women go here, and everybody else is just cinema in general. (laughs) And they can be compared to all kinds of people. So I don't know, on a certain level I totally get it and welcome it, but on another level I'd love to see what people think of me after I have a couple of films under my belt so they can really get a sense of what kind of filmmaker I'm going to be. Like, what is a Justin Simien film? I only made one, so it's hard to say.


Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick

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