By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood October 16, 2014 at 11:31AM
"Dear White People" was one of those first features we often see at the Sundance Film Festival that charges out of the gate exploding with all the things the young filmmaker wants to say. In this case, L.A.-based one-time publicist Justin Simien, 30, is exploring millennial race identity at a predominantly white Ivy League college.
"Dear White People" debuted in competition at Sundance, where it won a special jury award and was picked up by Roadside Attractions, which opens the film in theaters on October 17.
With a solid target audience of college students and millennials, it will be fascinating to see how Roadside handles the release given that the project started out as a provocative concept trailer that went viral in 2012 on Twitter (@dearwhitepeople), Facebook, Vimeo, crowd-funding site Indiegogo (which raised $40,000) and YouTube. This provided investors with reason to back the rookie filmmaker's first feature. Among those responding to the trailer were producers Stephanie Allain ("Boyz 'n the Hood") and Effie T. Brown ("Real Women Have Curves"). Allain jumped on board the project but later pulled in Brown in February 2013, as Allain had to go shoot another movie.
Brown found a fully-formed script that "you could see a path on a logistics and creative level," she says. "I've worked with a lot of first-timers. Justin knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it." They did streamline the script a bit. "There were multiple protagonists, and everyone has something to say. I know those characters, I grew up with them. I am often the only black face in a white place, many of the people who caught on to this film were once those kids. Those are problems I had. I loved how Justin brought it up, it was satire. I loved Kyle Gallner's line, 'what's really hard is to be an educated white guy in America.' There's a wee bit of truth there. Nobody's all wrong and nobody's all right."
The film, shot digitally in 21 days last summer with two weeks in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is based on Texas-raised Simien's experience going to Chapman University, says Brown. "It's his story, he is a combination of all those characters, they stemmed from him. He was the only black face; was his face black enough for the black kids, white enough for the white kids? 'Who are you?'"
Working in marketing and publicity at Paramount, Participant and Focus Features, Simien had written the script but started in 2011 and 2012 to concept test "Dear White People" with "Don't touch my hair," which gained traction on Twitter. "Everybody chimed into it and laughed about it at same time," says Brown. "That made it OK, it was funny, viral, people had a sense of discovery. Social media made sense of how to navigate. He knew how to galvanize an audience."
Simien rips a page from Spike Lee's "School Daze" and "Do the Right Thing," as biracial film student/activist Samantha (Tessa Thompson, "Even Colored Girls") hosts the campus radio show "Dear White People," flinging provocative taunts over the airwaves and taking over her ex-boyfriend's (Brandon P Bell, "Hollywood Heights") role as head of the African-American house. She keeps her new white boyfriend behind closed doors. Tyler James Williams ("Everybody Hates Chris") plays a kid who belongs nowhere except the campus newspaper. Teyona Parris (the receptionist on "Mad Men") is Coco, a conflicted smart girl who wants to be taken seriously by everyone without regard to her race.
The best-known cast member is Dennis Haysbert as the Dean of Students, who nurses an old rivalry with the white college president, which is played out by their respective sons, who each run their student house, under serious pressure from their fathers to perform and conform. Brown is familiar with the parents who tell their kids that they "know right from wrong, and that society will judge you if you fall outside that box...A lot of parents strove to do better, so you cannot fail, it's not an option. 'We fought too hard too long for you to mess up and fail.' That's huge in this industry for people of color: 'You have to be twice as smart, know twice as many facts and be twice as capable to get half of what they get.' Sometimes that's true."
The filmmakers tested the film with audiences with several screenings which helped to hone the story in the editing room, to make it clearer and more accessible.
Brown is betting that "after people see the movie, it will resonate with audiences who aren't necessarily people of color." The movie opens a window into a new discussion of race for a younger generation who are growing up with Beyonce and Barack Obama. Millennials take biracial dating for granted, for example, says Brown. "We can't say this is part of our culture, it's kind of American mainstream now."
Simien is certainly sophisticated about marketing and has built up a solid following for the film that could be reached via a digital VOD release, which Roadside knows how to handle --both "Margin Call" and "Arbitrage" were models for the recent Kickstarter-funded Warner bros. release of "Veronica Mars."
"We're realistic. This is something people are going to like," says Brown, "but it will need a platform release plan. It's a very communal experience, so we'll create events. The cast can act as ambassadors at college campuses, and go to your community and share. Without the fans, who we're sharing this with, we'd be nowhere. The community we were able to build, that's our ticket. People who feel 'oh snap, we got to see this movie,' that's it."