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10 Directors to Watch: Justin Simien Puts ‘White People’ in Perspective

Premiering at Sundance, 'Dear White People' expands upon Justin Simien's satirical Twitter handle

“Remember when black movies didn’t necessarily star a dude in a fat suit and a wig?”

With that pointed query, Justin Simien kicked off his successful Indiegogo crowd-funding push for his debut feature, “Dear White People,” in June 2012. He immediately hit a nerve: His witty concept trailer went viral and soon the filmmaker, whose publicity skills were sharpened in the marketing offices of Focus and Paramount, was responding to the buzz on CNN. Now he’s headed to Sundance.

The Texas-born filmmaker may mock Tyler Perry movies, but he insists he doesn’t intend “to throw shade at fellow black filmmakers,” as much as push back against studio executives with limited imaginations: “Films with predominantly white casts can come in any form, tell any story, big or small. For black films, you have the light fluffy rom-coms or Madea movies and then you have the black torture awards movie.”

He’s quick to add, “I love ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Fruitvale (Station),’ but I’m annoyed that the only versions of a black film that’s artful have to be these gut-wrenching, historical stories about us suffering, or stories about inner-city kids with horrible problems like gun violence. They’re all morality plays, and what’s gotten lost is a story that is complex, that asks questions like a ‘Do the Right Thing.’ ”

Simien’s ensemble satire, set on a fictional Ivy League campus, follows a black college radio host who offers frank advice (“Dear white people, please stop touching my hair”) and questions plans for an on-campus race-themed costume party.

Simien, who’s also producing the half-hour comedy “Twenties” with his collaborator Lena Waithe, says it was difficult to coax money out of producers until Code Red Films stepped in, not because the film is so controversial, but because there have been so few comparable satires starring black actors.

“Studios liked the script, but said they had no model for it — and they didn’t,” Simien says, laughing. “ ‘Do the Right Thing’ and ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ were in the 1980s!”

Stats:
› Age: 30
› Home base: Los Angeles
› Agent: Charles King (WME)
› Manager: Benjamin Rowe (Oasis Media Group)
› Lawyer: Gordon Bobb (Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, Finkelstein & Lezcano)

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