After growing through a spoof Twitter account, a viral concept trailer and a successful crowdfunding campaign, the feature film Dear White People will debut on Saturday at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, joining 16 other films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category.
Cloaked in satire, the film tackles racial identity at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League institution.
The title of the film comes from a character's campus radio show that addresses white people's misconceptions about black culture.
For example: "Dear White People, Listening to Flo Rida does not make you 'practically black.' "
The film marks the feature debut for director and screenwriter Justin Simien, 30. He began the script in 2007 after graduating from Chapman University, a private school in Orange, Calif. Simien says he drew largely from his own experience at the predominantly white institution in crafting the film.
Leaving his native Houston, Simien felt "exoticized for being black" when he got to Chapman. According to Chapman's fall 2012 enrollment data, only 94 of 5,681 undergraduates identified as black or African American.
"People had a lot of assumptions about me as a black person," Simien says. "That gray area toggling between how black should I or should I not act depending on who I'm around, not even fitting in with the black kids at first, not knowing where to fit in — that was the experience that I found myself having as I became an adult and entered the workforce. You sort of realize that all of us were having that experience."
A shared experience, yet Simien says no movie has yet to approach the issue directly. This fueled his desire to start a conversation about a traditionally sensitive subject.
"When you talk about being black, people who aren't black tend to sort of (think), 'Well is that racist?' People feel they may be attacked by it," Simien says. "But getting past that initial knee jerk reaction, there's actually wonderful dialogue that can happen."
Simien set his film at an Ivy League to develop a "microcosm" of America and to create what he considers a "more heightened experience of college."
Like Simien, Nandi George, a junior business major at Chapman and president of the Black Student Union, struggled to find her identity when starting college.
"When you come to a predominantly white campus, you're saying to yourself, 'Should I join a sorority and try and fit in that way or join BSU and be seen as militant or too black?'" George, 20, says.
Harvard University junior Tope Agabalogun, 21, a human evolutionary biology major and a member of the Black Students Association, says he watched the concept trailer for the film in 2012, when Simien and his team started crowdfunding on Indiegogo to make the feature film.
Agabalogun says as a black student in the minority, he often feels caught between maintaining his African American history and assimilating into the "manifold of campus."
Recently, black college students have started a national conversation as they address black identity in innovative ways.
At University of California – Los Angeles, black students created a YouTube video titled The Black Bruins [The Spoken Word] to highlight the school's lack of diversity, garnering over 1 million views.
And at the University of Michigan, black students aggregated their concerns on Twitter using the hashtag #BBUM, an event called "Being Black at University of Michigan."
Tyrell Collier, 21, president of the UM Black Student Union and a sociology and Afroamerican and African studies senior, says the concept trailer for Dear White People reminded him of various incidents on campus that sparked the #BBUM event, including a party planned by a fraternity in October entitled "Hood Ratchet Thursday."
"When we were dealing with the party incident, you could tell it was a very touchy subject," Collins says. "I think the main thing is ignorance, especially when coming to a predominantly white institution. People come from all over the place, and people have never really seen anyone outside of their race or culture."
Simien hopes the satirical tone of his film will serve as a gateway to dialogue, eliciting laughter from the audience while leaving them thinking about the issues of race.
While working on the screenplay, Simien created the Twitter account @DearWhitePeople in 2010 as a tool to test Samantha's voice and gauge how audiences responded to the satirical riffs.
To his surprise, fans have emerged from all types of people.
"Even though it's told from a black point of view because I happen to be a black man, I do think that it's about all of us," Simien says. "I mean, who hasn't felt like an "other" at some point, whether you're a woman, or gay or any other racial minority or even a white man in certain circumstances."
Already tapped by Variety as one of "10 Directors to Watch," Simien hopes to find a distributor for the film to show it in theaters nationwide.
Haley Goldberg is a senior at University of Michigan.