There are a few topics generally acknowledged to be taboo in polite conversation: religion, politics, and, of course, race.

Justin Simien’s new film, Dear White People, tackles the issues of racial identity head-on in a biting and profoundly relevant satire.

The film, which revolves around four black students at a fictional Ivy League university, has received widespread critical acclaim since its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Although Dear White People is Simien’s first feature film, he has already won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at Sundance and has been named on Variety magazine’s “10 Directors to Watch” list.

Shot on a modest budget, the film’s critical success has catapulted it to national consciousness, with Simien embarking on multiple press tours to promote the film. Last Monday, Simien sat down with The Varsity to discuss the film’s success.

Creating buzz

It is rare for a film of this kind to receive the grassroots momentum and critical acclaim Dear White People has achieved, but Simien has a few ideas as to why it has been so widely picked up.

“I think the buzz of the film is probably because they think the film can articulate something that oftentimes isn’t discussed… It’s gotten a lot of critical attention, which helped as well. It’s weird to say this about my own film,” he laughed, adding, “but I think another reason it’s being discussed is because, well, people actually like it and recommend it to their friends.”

Simien, who worked a number of jobs before turning to directing, has a background in public relations; he was social media manager at Sony Television, publicity assistant at Focus Features, and publicity coordinator at Paramount Pictures. Simien credits his PR experience as essential for raising the necessary funds for the film.

“We had to really generate some kind of buzz,” he explained. “Before, no one really knew or cared about us, so it was difficult to take the movie to the right people. I had to invent ways to make people take notice of the project. One of the ways was to make a concept trailer, put it on YouTube, have a crowdsourcing campaign, and build a buzz even though we didn’t even have a movie made, because we were in a situation where we couldn’t even finance the film if we couldn’t prove that people would be interested.”

The trailer for Dear White People went viral. Simien went in with a modest expectation of raising $25,000 through the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo. Instead, he managed to raise over $40,000.

A film about identity

“I see the film as ultimately being about identity, about who we are,” Simien said.

Simien, who is openly gay, addresses not only racial identity in his film, but sexual identity as well. “Ultimately what I want people to take away from the film, though, is some insight into that struggle we all have,” he explained.

He admitted that many of the film’s scenes are semi-autobiographical. “I think I’m just a storyteller… I write down strong experiences that I have, experiences other people tell me and I write it down… This is what I’ve been called down to do, I think,” he said.

Although there have been recent efforts by the film industry to address racial issues, most notably in last year’s Oscar heavyweight, 12 Years a Slave, Simien believes comedy has “a unique way of making an audience think.” Dramas, he explained, “make you feel —byou have a visceral experience watching it. But comedies make you think, because humour has more to do with the logical, thinking process.”

Looking ahead

Dear White People has been heralded as but the first step in Simien’s promising directorial career.

When asked about any future plans he may have, Simien laughed.

“I have too many stories and ideas to list them all… but I do know that filmmaking and storytelling is something I’ll always continue doing,” he said.

On his dream projects, Simien is reticent: “I have a lot of dream projects, but I won’t jinx them by revealing them just yet.”i