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Interview: Justin Simien talks influence, self and identity, and Dear White People

Justin Simien, the writer and director of the powerful and challenging film Dear White People calls from Los Angeles, and to my surprise, speaks more about film than specifically about his own film, but in a loop, ends up discussing more about the process of his own film than had I simply asked him about it. It is clear that Simien is a student of the game, and quickly places his film within a sphere of influence.

Simien says that “the films that immediately come to mind that influenced this one are Network (Sidney Lumet) and Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, playing as part of the Kubrick exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox) and Do The Right Thing, and Fame (Alan Parker) and Election (Alexander Payne), and a film called Persona (Ingmar Bergman) and a film called Metropolis (Fritz Lang).

He goes on to say that “(all are) films that are very complicated, and can be read many different ways, and were read many different ways when they were released…(many) are skewed towards multi-protagonist storytelling, kind of attacking a thing from many angles, where none of the characters are 99% right”.

Simien mentions in particular that “I often talk about the (Spike Lee) movie Do the Right Thing, because it’s called Do the Right Thing and you never get that. That’s the one thing the film denies you, a clear cut path, and that’s the brilliance of that film”.

As for his film, Dear White People, subtly describing it by posing a question, Simien says “The story as I see it is a story about identity and self. What does it mean to be your self, when your identity is much more important, when it comes to your survival in a culture?”

When prompted, he notes the importance that social media plays in the film, in forms both new and old, answering that it is a question of culture, more than anything: “For young people, who have immediate access to where they fit in the culture thanks to social media…particularly in college…I had to also include in that story the relationship between an individual and culture. We contribute to culture and are formed by culture, kind of in a loop”.

He states that based on experience, “People who see the film for a second, third, and fourth time walk away with a richer experience of the film”. Once again, Simien returns to his sphere of influence, the cinema, saying that “If anything, (this is) the product of the films that I love. All of these films are in my subconscious of my brain”.

As for his background in film promotion, he notes that “(Being a publicist) has prepared me mentally for the difference between the way something is perceived, and the way it is. (laughing) The disparity between those two things is often very wide”.

“Hopefully, I’ve constructed something that gets better the more you see it, and the longer it’s been since you’ve seen it”.

Dear White People is now playing at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas. See it at least once.