October 24, 2014

Film director discusses “being a black face in a white place”

Doc Films, the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), and the Organization of Black Students (OBS) hosted two events this Monday, including previews of a new movie on campus race relations, a talk by the director, and a community discussion.

This event is part of the OMSA’s new program, the Emerging Minds Project, which aims to generate discussion between students about social issues. 

After showing clips from his film Dear White People at Doc Films, director Justin Simien discussed the inspirations for his project and how it differs from other movies that feature black characters. Afterwards, at an event co-hosted by OMSA and OBS, contemporary human development post-doctoral scholar, Myles Durkee, led a discussion on issues raised in the film. 

Dear White People is a satirical film about “being a black face in a white place,” according to Simien. The film explores the experiences of four black students who attend a prestigious university with mostly white students. Simien wanted his film to portray a microcosm of the American experience by exploring the stories of young black college students.

Simien found a dearth of black characters in the movies that were influential to him. “That’s subtly almost saying that my experience is not the same as the rest of humanity. I really just wanted to see myself as a human being, as a complicated, messy human being. I need that experience,” said Simien.

When discussing the difference between his film and other black movies, Simien said that he wasn’t interested in making a film that had a dogmatic, “racism is bad” message or that served as a form of propaganda. “I really wanted to show how complicated these things can feel because when people see themselves and their complexities and then see other people and their complexities, that’s when we can have a conversation that can change things,” he said.

OMSA and OBS co-hosted a separate event later that day that featured Myles Durkee. He discussed the “racialized” experiences among students of color at predominately white institutions, including facing racial micro-aggression and accusations of acting white.

Durkee asked the audience, which was mostly comprised of students of color, if they had ever felt that they have been monitored at stores or stopped by the University of Chicago Police Department because of their race. Half the audience raised their hands in response. He cited these questions as examples of racial micro-aggressions.

He also explained the relationship between accusations of acting white and detrimental outcomes to their mental health, including depression.

Moderator Jacqueline Stuart said to Simien, “I went to college in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I don’t know if it’s encouraging or depressing that exactly the same types of conversations were happening now that were happening then.”