‘Microcosm of society’: Simien on the Chapman experience

‘Microcosm of society’: Simien on the Chapman experience
2005 alumnus Justin Simien based the show “Dear White People” on his cumulative experience at Chapman. Photo courtesy of Justin Simien

Written by Mitali Shukla

Published on 10/13/2019

One conversation after a Black Student Union (BSU) meeting changed the course of Justin Simien’s creative career.

“(The conversation) was with a group of people who were bound by the fact that we were some of the few black kids in this place,” Simien said. “I thought of how funny that that was the sort of thing that brings people together.”

Simien, the creator of the hit movie and show “Dear White People” (DWP), graduated in 2005 and went on to create one of Netflix’s most dynamic shows.

The Dodge College of Film and Media Arts graduate said the fictional college in the show, Winchester University, isn’t supposed to represent a specific school or even Chapman; rather, it is supposed to represent a fictional location that brings dialogue to real-world issues.

When asked where the concept for “Dear White People” stemmed from, Simien said that the story was inspired by a collection of events that occurred during his time at Chapman. He cited his cumulative experience from 2001 to 2005 at the university as the inspiration behind the full-length feature film and later, the Netflix-produced television show.

“For me, it’s a microcosm of American society at large. Winchester is really a version of America more than it is of Chapman or some other college,” he said. “It lives in a kind of limbo between realism and fantasy. It’s not a fantasyland, but it’s a very intentional, fictional place.”

Simien described the overarching theme of his work as centered on black Americans – depicting them as multifaceted and complicated individuals.

“Your identity decides where you can go, what you have access to, how smart you are in the minds of people or how trustworthy you are with money or information. Your identity is like your access key in this country,” Simien said. “That was what ‘DWP’ was about through the lens of the people who are marginalized. You can’t put people in boxes and rob them of their humanity. In a lot of ways, that’s what this idea of whiteness has done.”

Even though all the buildings in the television series are named after jazz musicians and the campus is a colorful constructed version of life, Simien said the show provides commentary on the real experience of being a black person in a very white-dominated place. In response to “The Birth of a Nation” poster controversy earlier this year, Simien said that although he was busy, he was somewhat able to follow along and was proud of the student body’s ability to collectively rise and call for its removal.

“I was very proud to see the student body get together and it seemed that (Chapman) had changed,” he said. “I appreciate that people notice and say something because historically, that hasn’t been the case.”

Given discussion regarding the esteem in which the Duffer Brothers and Simien are held, Simien said that Netflix show “Stranger Things” and “Dear White People” occupy different categories of entertainment and therefore cannot be juxtaposed or compared with one another.

“I really had to adopt the mindset that they do what they do and I do what I do. It drives you crazy if you think about it too much,” he said. “None of it’s fair and it’s not based on merit. The best film doesn’t always get an Oscar, and the best creatives often go unseen – especially if you’re black, a woman or gay.”

In terms of advice for up-and-coming black creators, Simien had two pieces of wisdom: the first was to do a mental health check, which for some may mean therapy or journaling. His second: “to do the thing that is most you.”

“I had this idea in my head of who I had to be to do what I wanted. But the biggest thing that happened between me not doing (the movie) and doing it was that decision: I wanted to make this movie even though I had no idea how to produce a film. And we did it,” he said. “Now we have ‘Sorry to Bother You,’ we have ‘Black Panther,’ we have ‘Moonlight.’ Back then, we had none of that; it was a desert. Choosing what was in my heart first is what pulled me out of my day job.”