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Lions Roar : September 2017
PHOTOBYMICHAELROWE I N THE SUMMER OF 2013, Justin Simien—the creator of Netflix’s new series Dear White People—had just quit his job to work on a film script. He was broke and unemployed and couldn’t find a production company that wanted his movie. A friend invited him to a Nichiren Buddhist meeting. “I said, ‘Why not?’” Simien recalls. Simien was raised Catholic, but he had read Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. He had tried medi- tating, but it never stuck. The main practice in Nichiren Buddhism is chanting the Japanese title of Buddhism’s Lotus Sutra, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo . “The opening invitation is: chant for what you want,” says Simien. “So I went and I started chanting. From the first moment, I had a heart connection with it.” In the weeks and months that followed, Simien’s life turned around. He directed a film of his script about Black students at a predominantly white college. He met his partner. Dear White People premiered at Sundance to rave reviews. Variety named Simien one of its “10 Directors to Watch.” “There was a dramatic shift in the way my life was going,” says Simien. “But it’s not magic. That’s not how it works.” Instead of blaming others for his struggles, Buddhism made him ask, “How can I take responsibility for this situation?” and gave him the sense that he was on a path. “That has made me a much stronger person,” he says. “You can’t help but build up courage when the group of people around you is constantly saying, ‘Go back to yourself, and plug away. Go deeper. Lean into the experience.’ The idea of con- stantly doubting myself had been ingrained in my brain since I was a kid. The expectation that things would not work out was really strong.” Creator of Empathy Empathy is the secret of Justin Simien’s creative success. Looking squarely at racial division, he reveals human experiences we can all relate to. SAM LITTLEFAIR profiles the Buddhist creator of Dear White People. Dear White People—about Black students at a predominantly white university—started as a film and is now in its first season as a Netflix series. LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2017 35