An Interview with Justin Simien

Justin Simien is the man behind Dear White People. It’s the movie for the subaltern within the intelligentsia. Simien wants to start a conversation, and he has, to publicize the normally private ethnic, intellectual and sexual prejudices that people hold. With friends, family and strangers I was choppin’ it up on premier night, in Century City, with the cast literally steps away (welcome to L.A.). Kudos Mr. Simien, your plan worked.

Everything we see is colored by the lenses we wear. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a prescription (a well-thought-out and organized worldview), because everyone has lenses. You’re a liberal, or a conservative, or black, or queer, or radical, or centrist, or affluent, or indigent et cetera. I’m a radically liberal black writer with a background in politics, philosophy and appropriate dispute resolution. So, when I see Dear White People, I see the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, protests against restricting the freedom to associate, pro-anarchy statements, just war theory, the depoliticization of technology and the commonplace misunderstanding of the freedom of speech amongst what emcee Gabriel Teodros calls the jitter generation, and I call the skim readers’ generation (the coffee-shop-revolutionaries that have read an article on everything, but a book on nothing).

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Hold on? When did this movie talk about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church? You can talk with more than just your mouth, and psychologists know that non-verbal language speaks louder than the spoken word. Sam White, the main character amongst an ensemble of protagonists, proudly wears a behemoth-sized Ethiopian Orthodox Cross throughout the movie. Being a church that stands for the dogma of the Nicene-Constantinople creed, it is peculiar that White would decry Christian dogma, and wear the greatest symbol of Christian dogma that the world knows. White rocks the reminder that Christ trampled death with death to bestow eternal life upon us. Anecdotally significant is the fact that this accessory from the movie is a part of actress Tessa Thompson’s, who played the role of White, wardrobe off the set. She bought it in Harlem, and convinced the costume designer to let her prominently display it throughout the movie. This shows us that on the set, and off the set, Thompson is an individual. Everyone is an individual, but I mean a person who goes out of their way to be set apart from the crowd.

Thompson’s desire for customization is an ideology. For me, it is what sets Five Guys burger stand apart from many of its competitors. You get to have the burger your way, and your options are almost as numerous as the sands of the earth and the stars of the heavens. Customization is only one part of individualism. Individualism is the rock upon which libertarianism, progressivism and indeed all anti-authoritarian ideologies are built upon. I believe this is why revisionist writer Jeff Riggenbach’s new book is Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor and the Rebirth of American Individualism. Thompson got to have her way, by wearing an Ethiopian Orthodox cross. All the secessionists in Catalonia, Vermont, Scotland, Quebec, Yemen and elsewhere are asking for is to have their way in determining what their communities look like politically. The individualist asks, “who are you to get in their way?”

The Freedom to Discriminate
We live in an age where the 4th estate (mainstream media), or branch of government, upholds the unholy duty to police our thoughts. The one commandment they hold above all others is clear to anyone who critically examines their actions. Thou shall not hold any opinions outside of the conventional wisdom held by Hilary Clinton and Chris Christie. Dear White People is about un-defining the conventional wisdom regarding sex, ethnicity and identity in general. The main conflict of
Dear White People is an ordinance by the administration of Winchester University (the fictional ivy league) that prohibits the long-standing freedom of students to live with people of similar ethnic backgrounds. This diktat is pronounced in the name of equity, but the black characters accuse affluent parents of tampering with the randomization of the diktat so that the parents are still able to freely associate their students by socio-economic status.

There is no one more courageous than you if you stand for the freedom to discriminate in the 21st century. Be a Walter Moderate Block. Defending the freedom to discriminate is not equal to defending discrimination, but even discrimination qua discrimination is not bad. Discrimination is a nuance that Dear White People respects. Sports teams discriminate based on skill when selecting members’ positions and the length of time they will play during games. In Dear White People, students discriminate when they select housing. Some do it by fraternity & sorority affiliation, others by hobbies, and the main protagonists do it based of off ethnic background. If you are a moral relativist, you have no grounds to say any of these discriminatory selections are wrong. If the students are permitted to associate freely, then they like all people, will have discriminating tastes. Sour versus sweet, spicy versus mild, rocky road versus cookies and cream et cetera. The freedom to associate is the freedom to discriminate, and without it, we could do little in this world.

People think anarchy means chaos. This is wrong. There can be no order without anarchy. Society is ordered spontaneously by billions of individual actors, or at least so say Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek and Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman. In Dear White People, Sam White says that anarchist methods cause real change. She speaks of anarchy positively in front of audiences that likely hold superstitious grudges against the word. This is just a micro-example of how Justin Simien challenges definitions in this film. Bravo Justin Simien, bravo.

Just War Theory
Afro wielding gay sci-fi nerd Lionel Higgins (Tyler Williams irl aka Everybody Hates Chris star) gets in a fight with the head honcho (Kyle Gallner) of the comedy group Pastiche that is a feeder to SNL and other renown professional comedy syndicates. Gallner’s character has him pinned to the floor like an MMA fighter about to be pummeled into a knockout to the chagrin of his loyal fanatics. Just War Theory holds that the only way to have a just war is to have a war that you did not start – a war of self-defense. If an army invades your territory, Just War Theory says that you have been granted the right to repel this foreign enemy. Just War Theory could be interpreted to say that WWI, WWII and all undeclared wars of the U.S. federal government since then were unjust. Not all who wave the libertarian flag hold to this theory, because some are pacifists and some are warmongers that get boners over preemptively bombing brown children back to the age of Wilma and Fred Flintstone.

What did Higgins do to make me think of this political theory of self-defense? Well, he defended himself. When large nation states attack smaller entities, the entities cannot match force with force tit for tat and expect to win. So, the smaller side in a battle, particularly in the 21st century, responds with networked resistance or guerilla warfare. The larger force uses symmetric warfare, and thus the smaller uses asymmetric warfare. Whilst you are being pinned to the floor, you are more likely to fight back in an asymmetric fashion than a symmetric fashion. It would be symmetric for Higgins to try to reverse their positions. Instead, he fought back asymmetrically by locking lips with his foe. Brilliant, when looked at purely from a tactical perspective.

Depoliticizing Technology
As far back as the year of our Lord 1965, tech titan Gordon Moore (the reason people speak of Moore’s law) predicted that technology would grow inexorably. So far, he has been correct. The State has much to fear, because its existence relies upon the coercive centralization of control. The State, the single greatest oppressor of the poor that the world has ever known, is dwindling in power due to the exponential growth and decentralizing power of technology. Thank God we live in the digital age. The age of 3-D printing, cryptography, DLSR cameras, torrents and other technologies that are trampling ,the enemy of the poor, intellectual ‘property’. When tech empowers the little man it is by dismantling corporatist State power. In the interview above, Simien approves of this trend toward liberation through technology that permitted him to be able to have less costs in producing this film. He regrets that this increased supply of film makers makes the industry more difficult to compete in, but the critical success he has garnered (97% on Rotten Tomatoes & Sundance’s U. S. Dramatic Special Jury Award) with this first film of his attests to his talent. In the movie, Sam White wields her portable camera like networked resisters in the Middle East and in Africa wield AK-47s. Her shooting is less violent, and debatably more effective at bringing the change she wants to see in the world.

The Freedom of Speech?
The entertainment industry is guilty of two cardinal sins regarding the American language. The first is not knowing how to use the logical fallacy of begging the question. Begging the question is not a statement that makes you inquisitive. It is when you make a claim without evidence, and then conclude your argument by restating your baseless claim. The second cardinal sin is abuse of the phrase freedom of speech. The freedom of speech is your right to not be prohibited from uttering the words of your selection by the U.S. federal government. You do not have freedom from non-State actors. In the movie, white fraternity boys host a blackface party. The adage says life is stranger than fiction. I don’t know if that’s true, but certainly in this case this ‘fiction’ movie is incredibly close to reality. Just counting the last four years, there have been 13 ethnic-bigotry-themed parties at universities in the U.S. So much for the post-prejudice society we live in with a black president and black billionaires.

The best test to see if people stand for free speech is to see if they will defend the right to the most insensitive, repugnant and vile speech of their enemies. It’s easy to conform and abhor ethnic bigotry in the 21st century. But, it’s hard to set yourself apart and defend Klan members’, flag burners’ and bible burners’ rights to speech. In Dear White People there were no petitions to silence the blackface party. In fact, Sam White incited the party with a caricature of an invitation that turned out to truly expose people’s generally subtle ethnic bigotry, turned overt, on her camera. I’m glad there was no speech silencing by any State actors in the film, but the illiteracy expressed by referring to this scene as a potential free speech issue should never be repeated by any viewer of this movie and reader of this article.

Watch Dear White People, and let me know what you think.