Movie Club Weekly – American Film Institute

August 11, 2020




Justin Simien’s witty and irreverent comedy DEAR WHITE PEOPLE stars Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson and premiered to acclaim at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival – and AFI alum Mel Jones (Class of 2010) was an associate producer on the film!

Did you know?


DEAR WHITE PEOPLE marks director Justin Simien’s debut feature film. He won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered and the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

The original title of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE was TWO PERCENT as a reference to the percentage of black students at the story’s fictional ivy league school. However, Justin Simien changed it to DEAR WHITE PEOPLE after being told that “number films never work” with marketing.

The fictional Winchester University was partially inspired by director Justin Simien’s Chapman University experience where the student body was 1.6 percent Black, and also by his time working in film marketing.

Justin Simien set DEAR WHITE PEOPLE at a university because he admired the way films such as FAME and ELECTION used school settings as microcosms for society at large.

Justin Simien said the character Samantha White was a cross between Lisa Bonet, Angela Davis and Huey from THE BOONDOCKS. Tessa Thompson, who was cast in the role, said she was inspired by Davis as well as political activist Kathleen Cleaver.

To develop the concept for DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, writer/director Justin Simien began tweeting as Sam White under the handle @dearwhitepeople. He tested jokes and incorporated many of his tweets – as well as some of the responses, a few of them hostile – into the final script.

Justin Simien used a tax refund to create a trailer for DEAR PEOPLE, which launched a crowdfunding campaign, raising $50,000 and attracting the attention of film industry veterans. AFI alum Mel Jones encouraged her boss at the time, independent producer and former LA Film Festival director Stephanie Allain, to read the script, and both women would eventually sign on to produce the film.

The closing credits of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE include actual photos from real-life college parties, with some real white students appearing in blackface.

In addition to creating the film, Justin Simien also wrote a companion book called “Dear White People: A Guide to Inter-Racial Harmony in ‘Post-Racial’ America.”

The acclaimed film would go on to be adapted into a Netflix show of the same name, with Simien returning to write and direct episodes of the series. Other prominent directors of the series include Barry Jenkins, Cheryl Dunye, Kimberly Peirce and AFI alums Tiffany Johnson, Charlie McDowell and Justin Tipping.

The movie doesn’t end at the credits. Engage with your family, friends and others like you who love the movies. Check out the AFI Movie Club Discussion Questions for this movie and post your responses in the comment section!


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