Stars of “Dear White People” discuss the right way to push the envelope

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Jason Wiese | Culture Editor

“Justin knows there is power in controversy,” said actor Brandon Bell, 29, referring to Justin Simien, the first-time writer-director of the satirical character study “Dear White People.” The film, distributed by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, focuses on four black youths whose lives converge in the wake of a campus-wide cultural divide at the fictional Ivy League college, Winchester University. Controversy is a major theme of the film and has also proved to be its main selling point.

As part of their promotional tour for the film, Bell and co-star Marque Richardson stopped at the Moonrise Hotel on The Delmar Loop in St. Louis for a discussion of the themes, culturally relevancy and current events that make “Dear White People” the ultimate modern-day button pusher.

“Sometimes you just know when you read something special,” said Bell of the film. “It’s relevant. It mirrors a lot of college students’ experiences.”

Bell plays Troy Fairbanks, a black youth whose strive to perfect his reputation in the eyes of his peers and of his father (Dennis Haysbert), the dean of Winchester, is worsened by the bitter rivalry between his black and white classmates.

“I find that always fascinating when characters have that inner conflict of outside expectations vs. their own and it’s got to crash at some point and it does for Troy in interesting ways,” he added. “Troy’s always putting on different masks depending on who he’s in front of, whatever group, whatever girl, however he can get ahead… He’s confused. They all are. All their identities are being mixed up and toyed with and developed but that’s part of being a young person in college, as well: figuring it out.”

Troy wants to be accepted by his white peers, which ruins his image with students supporting a pro-black movement at Winchester, including Richardson’s headstrong character Reggie. In one of the film’s funniest moments, Reggie and other filmgoers complain to a box office ticket seller about the latest Tyler Perry film. Richardson commented on the scene, which is an example of the film’s response to cinema’s representation of black culture.

“The line in the movie where Reggie says, ‘Man, f—Tyler Perry!’ is not a shot at Tyler Perry,” said the 29 year-old actor. “It’s more of a shot at Hollywood in terms of that they think [films by Tyler Perry are] the only things that we want to see in terms of black content, but, clearly, it’s not because here you have ‘Dear White People.’ So, if people support it, then that will show Hollywood that people are hungry for content that is… different for this time.”

“Dear White People” is coming out at a time when the topic of race is at its most heightened in the wake of violent tensions in Ferguson, Missouri in response to the death of Michael Brown. Recent comments have discussed how the parallel may hurt or help the film’s reaction.

“I feel like it’s an unfortunate circumstance in the sense that this stuff is happening right now here in Ferguson, but, it also feels like divine timing, in a sense where the purpose of the film overall was to start a conversation in a way that hasn’t been had before,” said Richardson on the issue. “If you look at different things that are happening around the world, whether it be here or Hong Kong or wherever, people are taking a stand whether that be against the government or whether that be against Hollywood, letting them know that you’re hungry for something different. I think it’s perfect.”

“Good art has always been socially relevant,” Bell added. “There are always themes that are universal and this film happens to touch on some of those, which race and identity are always going to be. Kind of like when ‘Fruitvale Station’ came out [around the time of] the verdict of George Zimmerman regarding the death of Trayvon Martin, this film [coming out] now with Ferguson, it’s eerie but, at the same time, necessary and I hope it is an opportunity, as art seems to present itself, for people to have conversations and have more of an understanding.”

It appears that Simien’s mission is accomplished, with “Dear White People” slowly becoming one of the most talked about films of the year. According to Indiewire, among all films in limited release last weekend, “Dear White People” opened second to “Birdman,” starring Michael Keaton, in only 11 theatres, and selling out at most of them, taking in a total of $344,136. The reception has been fairly positive, having been certified “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 92 percent among critics. A modern day button pusher indeed, “Dear White People” has managed to push all the right buttons, making Simien a talent to look out for.