Tag Archive: justin simien


 

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I don’t think Justin Simien will take any offense to me saying each incarnation of ‘Dear White People’ has been an improvement on the one before it.

The latest season (or volume as it were) builds on Season 1’s re-introduction of the characters and settings of Winchester University, and creatively expands on them in so many ways, the few highlights I’m about to list below only scratch the surface…

  • If you feel the need to play the comparison game, I guess ‘Atlanta’ would be the other choice, but the number of strong individual episodes in this season is absurdly high.  The ‘mushrooms’ episode.  The ‘abortion’ episode.  My actor’s bias has strong feelings for episode 8, which is essentially a one act play for the characters of Sam and Gabe; the amount of personal and political material in that half hour alone is obscene.
  • But my favorite episode of this bunch is the ‘Joelle’ episode.  The character is obviously a fan favorite, and the realization/breakdown of ‘the hotep’ was too hilarious and painfully accurate.
  • A ton of good cameos I won’t completely ruin, but I have to say seeing Lena Waithe and Tessa Thompson play against ‘what I was expecting’ was fantastic.  For the USC crowd my old classmate Daheli got more screen time this season as the Iyanla Vanzant doppleganger and she makes the most of it.

So yes, all the applause.  Carve out 10 more half hours of your time for this.

Streaming on Netflix.

 

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For the oldheads among us, the double victory run of the studio system acknowledging that a) there’s an audience for ‘Atlanta’, ‘Insecure’, and ‘Get Out’, and b) not only that, but it’s quality storytelling, continues with the Netflix version of Justin Simien’s ‘Dear White People.’  And I know I’m not the first to say this, but I agree it’s an improvement over the film.  Taking full advantage of the platform, a line of dialogue in the film that serves as backstory is nearly always fleshed out into a half hour episode that gives the audience more empathy for ‘why’ even characters you may not gravitate toward, do the things that they do.

Was the film geek in me biased from episode one with the ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ visual tributes?  Sure, but nods like this are subtle in each episode.  (Quick setup for the completely uninitiated: like the film, the story is set off when a blackface party is thrown by one of the fraternities on a predominantly white campus).  Justin directed a few of the episodes, I noted Tina Mabry’s name in the credits, but if you have to pick one episode, yes, the now Academy Award winner Barry Jenkins ‘Episode V’ is the strongest.

Ten not quite half hours.  I honestly wasn’t planning on getting through the whole season in one weekend, but sometimes the story keeps you that engaged.

Check it out.

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Returned to the director’s chair. Made a quality short that will find a new audience every holiday season (like the film its based on, ironically). Wrote my first original pilot. Wrote my first spec based on a TV show I love. Producer on another ‘legacy’ project that’s one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ things I’m thrilled to be a part of. The period of time from the last Ramadan to this one has found me in another peak period. Stability and consistency have arrived.

I’m mastering how to be as efficient as I can, I’ve reverse engineered the remaining details.  It’s happening.  The endgame (which we’ve half jokingly, half seriously called, ‘Muslim Clooney’.) Not as one giant home run swing, but by stringing together all the daily and weekly victories.  Far from over, but constant forward motion.  With a lot of help and support from many of you, I’ve worked myself into a position where I can think but not ‘overthink’, I’ve created a sense of ‘home’ (stability) which makes me more confident in myself and my natural voice.  We still have more fun than we should at times, but I’m reverting back to being more selective about when and where and in front of whom I act like the ‘devil may care goofball who doesn’t take anything too seriously’ and re-establishing my go-to move as being the ‘socially conscious, politically aware artist who prides himself on being a world citizen.’ The consistency.

Part of it I guess was aging into it, but I’m completely comfortable in ‘my spot.’  When I was younger, I’m sure some people thought I’d be some version of DeRay McKessen.  I love and support what that brother is, but I don’t know want his life.  When you hear me hype up Ava DuVernay or Issa Rae, I’m not angling for a gig; their voices and what they represent are important as well.  Even the young brothers who at some point maybe I was ‘suppose to be’, like Justin Simien or Ryan Coogler, I feel no envy.  They’re not telling my specific story or doing what I specifically do. I now live in the moment more than I ever have, but my eyes on the Big Picture; something bigger than I will ever be and something that will be here long after I’m gone.  This may be an easier statement for someone as defiantly individual as I am to say, but I believe it’s true: you will be challenged at every turn, you will have to fight for what you believe in at every step, but, what’s meant for you? No one can take that from you.

So back to this moment. The past couple of weeks I’ve started to strip away the unnecessary things, and this is part of it.  As much as is practically possible in 2015, I’m taking a social media and blogging hiatus for Ramadan (which starts later this week.) As I’ve told the people close to me, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I don’t have to ‘fix’ anything in my life.  I can routinely place my hand on the brass ring, but haven’t quite put my fingers around it. So my goal is making sure I maintain and continue to build upon my (say it with me now) stability and consistency.

I’m off for deep meditation and to protect the Future here in the dry lands.  If it’s meant to be and the time is right (say mid July?), we’ll get back to it.

Take care.

 

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First, the macro level:

For my generation, we all looked up to Spike (with John and Reggie not far behind).  and in those days, it’s fair to say we all had some form of a ‘hero complex.’  Without getting into a much bigger conversation about black leadership in America, what we grew up on is ‘one voice up front that speaks for everybody.’  We kid each other now, but I can recall many early meetings with friends that usually started with someone walking in the room more or less saying ‘I’m here now, so you got what you need to make a movie!’

What hip hop has evolved into for the past couple of generations, and the (thankful) direction black filmmakers have been successfully growing into is the much more true to life idea that there are several points of view, even those who contrast with each other, that are all ‘authentically black.’

(How’s that for a segway into the micro?)

Dear White People is built around four archetypal characters every black person (especially if you went to college) will recognize: Tessa Thompson as the biracial kid who’s metaphorically yelling Black Power louder than most of the ‘fully’ black kids. Tyler James Williams as the (closeted homosexual) kid who’s not quite black enough for the brothers, but too black to hang out with the white folks.  Teyonah Parris as the bougie black person who goes a little too far to prove she’s not like ‘those hood black people.’  Brandon P. Bell as the good looking, and polished legacy kid whose every decision is setting himself up to be ‘The Guy’, right on down to the white girlfriend.

The jokes come quick and hit the bullseye when the come, especially in the first half.  There’s a Gremlins joke that I think is in one of the trailers that’s still funny.  There’s a throwaway line that you have to take as a direct reference to Dawn on Mad Men (where Teyonah appears often but doesn’t give her the opportunity to show the range and the sexuality that she does here, and I LOVE Mad Men.)  There are other direct and indirect references to Spike in the film.  Do I see Dear White People as School Daze 2.0?  Yes I do, but that’s by no means an insult.

Do I think it’s a perfect film?  No.  I have nitpicks in the third act and (like a true Spike Lee joint) there were some tone changes and convenient circumstances I didn’t really go all in for.  But as a first film?  Go back now and watch She’s Gotta Have It.  Even Spike has publicly said how much now he hates some of the choices he made with the third act of that film.  Look at the progression Ava DuVernay has made I Will Follow to Selma.  The young brother who directed this film, Justin Simien, he’s clearly got talent and he has a ‘voice’ that’s not what everybody else is doing.  I for one, look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.