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Not since Spike Lee's work in the late '80s has a film tackled the lives of modern blacks as well as writer-director Justin Simien's Dear White People does. The film takes place at the fictional Winchester University, and follows four characters, the most outspoken of which is Sam White (Tessa Thompson). She has her own radio show, aptly called, "Dear White People," which calls out whites for a number of things—such as dating a black person to get their parents angry—and dishes out advice for blacks, including how much to tip a waiter that's already served every white patron in a restaurant before getting to them.
Yet when Sam wins a student election against Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), to lead the Winchester's black residence hall, her unexpected victory ignites a series of events for many of the characters that bring into question their identities, the communities they associate with, and the masks (sometimes literal) they put on for everyone else. Reggie Smith, played by Marque Richardson, is Sam's righthand man who, as Richardson describes the character, has a bit of a Malcolm X vibe to him.
Richardson (who's also appearances in Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Newsroom), Simien, and co-stars Teyonah Parris and Tessa Thompson sat down with Complex to chat about the importance of the film, reactions from audiences, and why Dear White People doesn't just hold a message for, well, white people.
The film is just a few days away from its release. How has all of the media attention been so far?
Marque Richardson: It’s been cool. We had a screening at USC a couple of weeks ago, and that’s where me and Brandon Bell, who plays Troy, went to school. We actually lived on an all-black floor at USC our freshmen year, so basically we lived the story of Dear White People. But for whatever reason, my mind is slow, so I didn’t even realize that I had lived it until I was sitting next to Justin at Sundance and we were about to do an interview and I was like, "Oh, shit! We actually lived this!" And Justin was like, “You’re just realizing that now?” This is like six or seven months after we'd done the last shot and I’m having an Oprah “ah-ha!” moment.
It was called Summerville Place and it was 16 dudes and 16 girls. It was madness, it was crazy—a lot of drama!
Dear White People takes places in a fictional university. How does it hold up to your experience at SC?
I would say to a tee, to tell you the truth. Just in terms of looking at the four main characters of the movie, and being able to think of that one person or group of people that fit this or that character, it’s pretty honest to what my experiences in college were. But I will say that a couple of months ago we had a screening at UCLA and there were mad black people—they were angry. They were angry at the film because, in their eyes, they thought the movie was going to go in on white people, and really give the hardcore perspective of their experiences at UCLA. I guess certain individuals there didn’t feel like the film was honest to their experience. With that, I said, “Well, if you want to make a film about your experience, you should do that. Justin made a film that was honest to him. As a filmmaker, it’s your job to tell your truth, so that’s what he did.”
But overall, they still enjoyed it. It was interesting that out of all the screenings and Q&As that I’ve been to, that was the first time where we really got people who were mad. Justin wanted to create a piece of work that started a conversation, and clearly that’s what it has done.
at UCLA, there was a white person who got up and said that he felt uncomfortable with [Dear White People]. He felt uncomfortable sitting in a room full of minorities and not knowing if it was okay for him to laugh. - Marque richardson
What do your white friends think about the film?
I don’t have any white friends! [Laughs.] No, they’re excited about it. Actually, at UCLA, there was a white person who got up and said that he felt uncomfortable with it. He felt uncomfortable sitting in a room full of minorities and not knowing if it was okay for him to laugh, which was why Justin gives a speech right before screenings, specifically for white people, to say that it’s okay to laugh.
But he loved the film. He said his eyes were open to issues he didn't even know was going on, especially since a lot of people think this is a post-racial America and that racism doesn’t exist.
Have you gone to any of the screenings in southern states?
I haven’t, but Justin’s been to Atlanta. And on Sunday I leave for the Midwest, Detroit, and St. Louis, with all the things that are happening there. Yesterday, I got asked the question about if I see the film sparking more racial tension in America, and I said that I don’t see it doing that because it’s just a conversation piece. It’s not what the title suggests.
Right, after watching the film, regardless of the title, it wasn’t just meant for white people.
Yes, yes. That’s the thing—at all the screenings, from Sundance to New York, the audience has always been very diverse. There’s been white people, people from different continents and what not. There was one woman from Latin America who came up to me and said, “Thank you for telling the story because it relates to me.” It’s not just a story for black people or white people, or one group in particular—it’s relatable. It just so happens that black people are Justin’s story. It relates to everybody. It’s more so a story about identity and acceptance.
Were there any scenes in the film that were more challenging than others?
For me, what stands out for me as the most challenging part is that I’m not as intense as Reggie—he’s like Malcolm X, "Fight the power." For the character, I did a lot of research, listened to a lot of N.W.A., Malcolm X speeches, Public Enemy, Run DMC. So we’re shooting in Minneapolis and I’m listening to Malcolm X talking about “blue-eyed devil this” and “white devil” that, and with Minneapolis being one of the whitest cities in the world, I’m leaving set and all I’m seeing is blue-eyed devils! [Laughs.] I’m not a like method actor or anything, but I did feel some kind of way after emerging myself into all of that, where I had to remind myself to save those feelings for the set.
There’ have been a lot of comparisons between Dear White People and some of Spike Lee's older work, like Do the Right Thing and School Daze. Did you take a peek at those while preparing for your character?
I didn’t go back and watch any of those, but I did watch them growing up. I definitely appreciate that work. Another thing that I completely forgot—like I told you, I’m slow—I didn’t realize that my character is like a mix of Buggin’ Out from Do the Right Thing and a modern-day Malcolm X. I love Spike, and I love the movies like that which come out every 15 or 20 years. It’s all cyclical. This goes back to like the early 1900s, where black people talk about how they don’t like the way they’re being depicted in Hollywood movies. Then we have a group of filmmakers that come up and say “hey, how about this,” and put a different spin on it.
It’s all cyclical. This goes back to like the early 1900s, where black people talk about how they don’t like the way they’re being depicted in Hollywood movies. Then we have a group of filmmakers that come up and say “hey, how about this,” and put a different spin on it. - Marque Richardson
That’s a good point. Even the film itself kind of pokes fun at a lack of strong cultural black films and an abundance of Tyler Perry movies. Do you think there will be a rise in films like Dear White People?
I definitely think that we’re in that time now, in terms of that spark. The community, or communities, of people are tired of being fed a certain type of content. That’s where your Dear White People's and your Do the Right Thing's come from. Take it all the way back to 1915 with Birth of a Nation and the response to that.
I think we’re in another resurgence and hopefully people support Dear White People whether they like it or not. That green lights the next filmmaker’s story that’s in the same vein of the resurgence. It shows Hollywood that people are hungry for that kind of smart content right now. Then, another 10 to 15 years down the line, it will fade and come back up. I’m glad to be a part of it.
Have you grown tired of the content that’s been coming out?
To tell you that truth, yes, actually. In terms of regular network television. I was driving down the street the other day and I’m seeing all of these buses with the big ads for the pilots and the new shows that got picked up, and always the whole cast is white, or they got the one black or Indian guy, and if you’re anywhere in between, you’re fucked. So, any other kind of Asian or Hispanic group, they’re fucked. I’m definitely tired of seeing that. But, on the lines of that, if I want to see something different, it’s my responsibility to create something different. If we want to see something that’s different, or evolve our content, we have to be responsible for creating it.
if I want to see something different, it’s my responsibility to create something different. If we want to see something that’s different, or evolve our content, we have to be responsible for creating it.
Do you have anything lined up that’ll tap into people’s emotions?
I can only hope! [Laughs.] I’m a writer as well, and I think the biggest reason Dear White People is doing so well so far is that there was a hunger for it. I love comedy, and I have a project that I’m working on that’s like HBO’s The Comeback, which is about a washed-up actress who’s trying to work her way back up. It’s hilarious, I love it.
I’m doing a show in that vein called The Come Up, that’s basically taking all of the bullshit of a come up actor who happens to think he’s more than what he actually is. But there’s not a need for it. People are going to enjoy it, but there’s not a specific cause for it, like there is with Dear White People. I’m not trying to change the world with it. There’s another project called Game Boys that I’m developing that’s about the competitive arcade gaming world in the '80s, like an Anchorman meets Talladega Nights. That’s what I love, and I think people will be entertained by it, but it’s a completely different thing from Dear White People—that’s a social movement.
I asked Justin Simien a similar question, and I want to get your thoughts, too. Say Dear White People II comes out five years from now, where do you think Reggie will be?
[Laughs.] Well, we did a couple videos for the Dear White People promotional campaign, and in one Reggie makes a comeback. In the video, he’s basically doing an infomercial for an app called Dverse, where white people can add people of color in their pictures to make them seem cooler if they don’t have any friends of color. In five years, Reggie will still be running his Dverse company, and he’ll sell it to somebody for a couple billion dollars.
Reggie’s a techie himself in the film, which subtly touches upon the lack of minorities in Silicon Valley.
He’s an evil tech genius, and he’s black. He might be the first black tech billionaire.
Well, technically, I think that’s Dr. Dre now.
True! [Laughs.] I guess Reggie will be the second. Well, hopefully not! Hopefully there will be more.
Dear White People opens in limited tomorrow, before expanding nationwide next Friday, October 24. Follow Marque on Twitter here.