msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February.
Justin Simien, 31, is the director of “Dear White People” from Houston, Texas. He recently chatted with msnbc about his love for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” the importance of truth, his love for comics, and his upcoming projects.
Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:
I’m a storyteller.
What type of stories?
I live by the maxim that I took from Stanley Kubrick which is that, it is important that stories be daring and sincere. It’s important to tell the truth in some kind of way, and it’s important to tell the truth in a way that is new.
Tell me more about your family background in Houston, what are you rooted in?
I grew up in Houston, Texas. My father died when I was six of ALS … My mother is what they call creole, so I grew up certainly within a black family but none of us looked the same … you know, shades all over the place. [Where] we lived, it wasn’t quite Third Ward but it was Third Ward adjacent. So it was an all-black community but I was bused off to what they called magnet programs. So I was schooling in predominately white schools but mixed too, diverse in some ways, but growing up in a black neighborhood. From an early age, I was constantly sort of toggling who I was in my personality to sort of match whatever environment I found myself in.
How has the loss of your father impacted you – both as a young kid and now as an adult?
One of the reasons why I think identity is so interesting to me is that the model for the black man, being a black man in this world, I didn’t really have that in a father figure type person. I think part of my fascination in trying to figure out why whatever I was and really feeling like I didn’t see myself in any sort of cultural reference … I think in some ways [the loss of my father] is probably influenced because I didn’t have that [black man] model growing up.
What were your first memories of film?
I remember that I was always drawing and I’m not a good drawer at all. I was always sketching out stories like in comic book form. I would see movies and the first thing I would do is recreate them in some sort of way. I had all these sketchbooks with terrible drawings. In retrospect, I was just trying to tell stories, visually. I was watching “X-Men,” or some kids show and it dawned on me that it was someone’s job to make this stuff and to put it on TV and put it in movies. I didn’t know it was called a film director. I didn’t know what that was called. I just knew at that age, that I wanted that job. I wanted to figure out whatever it was and be that.
If you had to choose two films to play on repeat … forever:
“2001: A Space Odyssey” and “All that Jazz”
How did your background loving comics influence the making of “Dear White People”?
I remember when I watched “Do The Right Thing” for the first time and I was so blown away because first of all, it’s a masterpiece. Not only is it a masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece made by a black filmmaker. Not only is it a masterpiece made by a black filmmaker, but it’s about black life. And that was really the first time that those three things came together for me … What I really love about “Do the Right Thing” is that it’s shot like a comic book … It’s a “street story” about police brutality which is obviously something we’re still dealing with. But [Spike Lee] shot it with such life and vibrancy and energy and I think there was something about that that probably subtly has informed my style.
What did you feel when President Obama said that his first date with first lady Michelle Obama was watching “Do the Right Thing”?
It was cool … It’s amazing. I love that he is just so bold, so bold in saying it, “Do the Right Thing.” At the time it was a very controversial movie, believe it or not. I think it’s awesome. I’m glad culture has come around to really embrace the film … it gives me hope for my movie one day … being embraced by all people.
Given the violence involving young black men and women over the last few years, do you expect to see more “Fruitvale Stations”? How do you see art reacting to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner tragedies?
There are easy versions of this story where people go to the movies and feel justified or validated because they saw a movie that says that racism is wrong. I think the tragic approach—absolutely necessary and needed because people who don’t get it need to start getting it … If you go and see a movie about race and you leave feeling happy or empowered, that movie didn’t tell you the truth because, it’s complicated. You can’t solve a problem that big in an hour and 45 minutes, you just can’t. The best you can do is get people out of the theater and get them so you are continuing to talk about it … I know we [will] get another group of tragedies about the black experience.
What’s the gap between what you expected and how people reacted to “Dear White People”?
I didn’t expect too many people to react so negatively to the title that hadn’t seen the movie. I knew it was going to be mildly controversial but, I have to say, some of the pure animus from people who just haven’t even seen the trailer boggles my mind. I can’t imagine what they think the film is going to be that provokes some of these reactions … It’s interesting that white artists can be far more controversial than I am, than either my title or my movie and not receive that kind of animus from groups of people. I think it reinforces what I already know. Being perceived as a person of color comes with a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with me. I’m happy that people who have seen the movie, by and large, love it or are feeling some type of way. That to me is a movie I wanted to make.
Who was most responsive to “Dear White People”?
Young people of all races. Young black people really really responded to it.
Did you think “Selma” was snubbed?
I heart [grabs chest] for Ava [DuVernay] because she deserved it. I thought she really arrived as a filmmaker with that film – she deserved it. It’s weird because it’s like “oh we love the movie” but the lead actor [David Oyelowo] and director had nothing to do with it or something because they didn’t get the nom. I think Ava knows this and I certainly know that the voting process in The Academy is very tricky, it’s complicated. You can’t take it terribly personally, it’s like anything in Hollywood.
What can we expect in 2015?
There’s a project at Paramount that I’m attached to dealing with Anthony Mackie called “Make a Wish”… really funny funny movie, great script. I’m writing something new that I think is very subversive and a departure from “Dear White People.” I think “Dear White People” should have a life on television. I’d like to see those characters’ journeys continue.
If you had a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you tell him?
I wouldn’t tell him anything, I’d ask him a lot of questions, because it’s gotta be hard to be the first.
If you had to rewrite history …
I wish Michael Jackson were still alive … I miss his music, I miss his impact.
What are your memories of Black History Month as a child in school? What do you make of it today?
I had the black history cards, a playing card set. I remember my mother pulling out the cards and being quizzed on who these people were and what they did … I almost think we need a revival of what [Black History Month] means because it’s such an eye roll … it is true that black Americans still need to be reminded that they are great.
“Dear White People” is now available on iTunes, Video on Demand sites, DVD, and Blu-Ray.