It’s been an amazing year for the cast and crew of Dear White People. In March, the satire won Indiewire and Tribeca Film Institute’s first-ever Project of the Year award, and last week The Sundance Institute announced that the feature film will compete in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2014 festival.
This is huge news for the Black film world and young screenwriter Justin Simien, who was able to make his directorial debut after the concept traitor went viral on YouTube and fans donated over $40,000 for the film’s production.
Out of all the projects chosen for the upcoming Sundance festival — 118 to be exact — we are most excited about Dear White People because it tells a story that many of us know so well. It’s about being a Black face in a White place and exploring personal identity in “post-racial” America.
Hello Beautiful caught up with two of the film’s major players, producer Lena Waithe and actress Ashley Featherson, who have been working together on the Black&Sexy TV web series “Hello Cupid” (Waithe created and writes the show, Featherson stars), to discuss why this new project is so important, how it got to Sundance and when we can expect it in theaters!
Check out what the oh-so-talented ladies had to say in our Q & A below.
HelloBeautiful: Dear White People is a satire about being a Black face in a White place. What attracted you to the project. Was it personal experience?
WAITHE: Honestly, what attracted me to the project was Justin. I met him at a writer’s group and we were working on scripts and the script that he was working on was Dear White People. It was called 2 Percent then, about four or five years ago. The first time I heard the material and the first time he talked about it I thought it was modern, I thought it was fresh and unlike anything I had ever heard before.
FEATHERSON: What’s so brilliant about this film is not one person will be able to watch it and not identify, whether they see themselves in one of the characters or somebody that they know. And that’s what I think makes Dear White People so universal. It resinates with everybody no matter what color you are, no matter what gender you are, sexual orientation, none of the matters because you can find yourself in one of these characters.
HB: The film is going to Sundance! What does that mean to you? What does it feel?
WAITHE: It’s overwhelming; it’s out of body. It’s a combination of a lot of blood, sweat and tears. The reason why it’s such a huge thing for us is because we always wanted to premiere at Sundance…We moved our schedule up, we shot in a short period of time, we dealt with a lot of sh*t — I’m just going to be real with you! — in order to meet that deadline. Our imaginary deadline was the Sundance deadline to have at least a rough cut of the film. That’s how we plotted our schedule, so to get in it was like the end of the movie The Pursuit of Happyness.
FEATHERSON: When I got the news, I was holding back tears because I know how hard everyone worked. And Justin just deserves this so much so I just feel happy to be a part of it at all.
HB: How does that process work? How was the film chosen for the festival?
WAITHE: They have a lot of really talents folks that work over at Sundance and they get thousands and thousands of submissions. And I know every submission they have to watch and they end up picking 118 films. Only 16 are in competition [for the U.S. dramatic competition] and obviously we are one of them. They have different sections where your film can show but you won’t be up for best director or best cinematographer and you won’t be eligible for the audience jury award. So they told us we got into the festival and then we found out we were in competition. The fact that we are in the pool of films that could possibly win something is even more of an honor. Ava Duvernay was the first African-American person to ever win best director in the entire history of Sundance — which is huge! So for that to happen last year and for us to be here this year is great.
HB: Did the team get help from any household names? Did Ava DuVernay reach out when she found out the good news?
WAITHE: We actually reach out to Ava to get some advice about Sundance because she obviously went through the experience and had an amazing experience at Sundance last year. So we were like, ‘What do we need to know? What is some advice you have for us?’ And she was kind enough to take an hour out of her busy schedule, the night before her table read for “Scandal,” and talk to me and Justin! That thing that Black folks don’t support each other is BS because these filmmakers have been so great.
HB: I know Issa Rae contributed to the project. What was her role and what was it like working with her?
FEATHERSON: Issa was there and it was amazing. First of all, Issa was always supportive of the film from day one. She was like, “If I can be a part of it, I will.” And she came out and kind of made a cameo appearance. We had so much fun with her.
HB: Director and writer Justin Simien said the film isn’t about “white racism”, or racism at all. It’s about identity.
WAITHE: Not all Black movies are created equal and just because a film has Black people in it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be good or represent Black folks. So the great thing about Dear White People is we already have an audience, this following that we built already. And the Black folks we are hearing from are saying that this actually represents me. Like this is actually something I can relate to. It’s not just a studio putting Black folks in it to get Black dollars. This is a real experience.
FEATHERSON: This was my first feature and for it to go to Sundance it just shows you that when you latch on to a project that you believe in it’s bound to be successful.
HB: Over the past year the project has gotten a lot of publicity and the feedback has been positive and controversial. What do you think the biggest misconception about the film has been?
FEATHERSON: I think one of the biggest misconceptions about the films is that it’s not relevant anymore. That might be the wrong word choice, but what I mean by that is a lot of people [say] the situations that happens in Dear White People, because they are uncomfortable situations, they are like, “Well that doesnt happen anymore, nobody would do that or racism isn’t that bad anymore.” It is, you know what I mean? So I think that that’s the biggest misconception. Rather than deal with what the movie is talking about, they’d rather act like it doesn’t exist… And it’s not just Black people. It’s anybody. There are situations White people can relate to as well.
WAITHE: I think what the comments did is prove our point that we don’t live in a post-racial society. Racism is alive and well, not just in our world but on YouTube comments.
HB: Does the team have a particular strategy for releasing the film? What are the chances of the film coming to theaters?
WAITHE: Here’s the deal, when we go to Sundance studios are there and they are shopping. We definitely have some studios that we think are interesting and will do well by the film, but it really depends. When we get there next month, there will be a lot of talking and hopefully there will be a lot of bidding. I have faith we will land the right studio and from there that’s when we can really start to strategize that because they will have a say obviously when the film is released.
The 2014 Sundance Film Festival takes place January 16-26 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah. We’ll be sure to keep you posted on the weeklong activities and award recipients.
Check out a sneak peek of the film below:
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