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Lions Roar : September 2017
J USTIN SIMIEN WAS SIX when his father died of ALS. His dad had started another family when Simien was young, and when he died, Simien felt doubly abandoned. Like the character in Dear White People named Lionel—whose father also died when he was a child—Simien was an awkward, gay, Black kid who didn’t fit in with his peers. He liked Alanis Morissette, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails, but felt a strong pres- sure to conform to America’s cultural stereotypes of Black males. “The model for being a Black man in the world—I didn’t have that in a father,” Simien says. “That’s one of the reasons identity is so fascinating to me.” Buddhism offered him a new lens through which to study “self ” and “other.” When he started dedicating himself to intro- spection, Simien discovered a deep sadness inside that he had been trying to ignore. “Once I got all the things I thought I needed to be happy, I realized how profoundly unhappy I was. I had everything I had been praying for, but I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I was still a miserable person. I wasn’t able to take any of it in. Simien says that Buddhism helped him recognize his depres- sion, which allowed him to work through it. “It’s just about surrendering. Because, if I can get through it, maybe I can help someone else get through it.” Dear White People is Simien’s effort to help others work through their suffering. Before graduating from college in 2005, Simien started thinking about making a film about his experience attending predominantly-white Chapman Univer- sity. His script was a lighthearted yet insightful comedy about what it’s like to be “a Black face in a white place.” Simien made it a comedy because he wanted to encourage the audience to feel comfortable talking about the issues raised in the movie. “Humor allows you enough distance to be able to think about it without taking it so personally,” says Simien. In 2012, he released a concept trailer for Dear White People and crowd funded $42,000 to shoot the movie. It got picked up by Lionsgate and released in 2014. In 2016, Netflix asked Simien to create a ten-episode series based on the movie, which was released in April of 2017. He wrote a book of essays about race, with the same title. All of Simien’s work reflects an inward journey. Netflix’s Dear White People isn’t a story about blame; it’s a story about characters’ insecurities and self doubts as they try to answer the question, “Who am I?” By digging into his discomfort, Simien began to understand his own identity. Over time, he crafted characters based on what he learned in self-investigation. They would become the protagonists of Dear White People. GROWING UP, SIMIEN LEARNED to process his pain through storytelling. He experienced racism for the first time in grade two, when a friend excluded him from their birthday party because he was Black. “It never dawned on me that because we look different we couldn’t be PHOTOBYPATRICKWYMORE/NETFLIX Simien (center) uses personal experience to craft Dear White People’s characters. He directs Logan Browning (right), who plays radio host Samantha White, and DeRon Horton (left), who plays Lionel Higgins, a student struggling with his sexual identity.