“Dear White People” may be a satire about race relations but cast members said they hope people walk away with more than just a few laughs.
The film, which played at the recently concluded Los Angeles Film Festival, follows a group of black students on a fictional, predominately white college campus as they explore racial identity in a “post-racial” America.
“I want people to walk away from the film feeling some kind of way,” said writer-director Justin Simien. “I want [viewers] to have enjoyed themselves but even more so I want there to be some sort of thing in them that is kind of disturbed that they have to talk about.”
Simien, who went to Chapman University in Orange County, said he put himself into many of the characters.
“I wanted to comment on my black experience --being a black face navigating between white spaces and black space, not really sure how I fit into either,” he said. “That was the experience of many of my friends and peers.”
Tessa Thompson, who plays the activist and film protagonist Samantha, said character growth is at the core of the film.
“It’s really about identity and who you are, who you think you ought to be and who people want to you to be,” she said. “I think it’s something that we all deal with.”
Tension escalates toward the end of the movie when a group of mostly white students, wearing blackface and drinking out of watermelons, throw an African American-themed party.
In reality, a number of college campuses across the U.S. have received media attention (and backlash) after throwing similar parties and posting photos of them on social media.
“The riot at the race-themed party…hits close to home,” said actor Brandon Bell, who plays Troy in the movie. “If you’ve been to college in the U.S. you’ve seen that.”
Bell said the film does a good job poking fun at the idea of race on college campuses while also shedding light on “reality of race in this country.”
“The film is funny, at the end of the day… but it will definitely strike a nerve,” he said.
Marque Richardson, who plays Reggie in the film, said he and Bell shared camaraderie both on set and when they lived on an all-black floor together as freshmen at USC.
So far, the actors said the film has generated laughter, tears and even some uncomfortable silences. At the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, where it debuted, it took home the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent.
“At Sundance…there was a woman who worked at a Fortune 500 company that said, your film should be shown in our race sensitivity meetings,” Bell recalled. “That blew me away because you make a film to entertain but when it goes above and beyond and changes the way people think…that’s just icing on the cake.”
Just before the LAFF screening on Wednesday night, Simien made sure to tell the audience: “It’s OK to laugh.”
“Dear White People” is scheduled to hit theaters in October.
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