How Dear White People Went From Social Media Sensation to Sundance Darling

By  · Published on January 19th, 2015

Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions

On Tuesday, the day after Martin Luther King Day, Justin Simien’s Dear White People will be released on Digital HD with a Blu-ray and DVD release to follow on February 3. Now almost a year after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, it feels as if we’ve been talking about this movie forever. It was 2012 when Dear White People first popped up on the radar. First with the launch of Simien’s witty and oft-controversial @DearWhitePeople Twitter account, followed by a successful crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo, the movie utilized the power of the Internet to give a kid who wanted to provide perspective the opportunity to do so. It’s a perspective that delivered one of the most interesting satirical films we’ve seen in a good long while.

Long before our chief critic Rob Hunter named it among his Best of 2014 and well before he published his glowing review from Sundance, Dear White People was simply a personal vision for Simien. In 2006, he began writing a script based on his own experiences as an undergrad at the predominantly white Chapman University in Orange, California. “I called it Two Percent, which reflected my experience of being one of very few black people at a mostly white college,” he recalls. “It was the position I had been in most of my life – toggling back and forth between black and white worlds.”

“In black communities,” he explains. “I was always trying to figure out what shade and type of black person I should be. That inspired me to tackle what I thought would be an interesting new point of view of black experience in America.”

Simien was also feeling frustrated at the lack of a black point of view in what he terms “smarthouse” cinema. “There were no new movies like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle or Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. That movement seemed to have died. I wanted to pay homage to that genre.”

With that audacious goal, he set out to make Dear White People. Finding it difficult to break into the Hollywood establishment with his story, Simien used the success of his Twitter feed and a concept trailer to give the world a feel for his movie. In this exclusive clip from the Digital/DVD release, we get a look at the pivotal moment when a young man with something to say used his tax return to turn a social media sensation into an eventual Sundance darling.

It kind of makes you think: what life-altering thing are you doing with your tax return this year?

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the upcoming One Perfect Shot TV show (HBO Max, 2021) and the co-host of The Storm: A LOST Rewatch podcast. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)