Justin Simien

Growing up in Houston Texas, Justin Simien recalled that his earliest friends at the magnet schools he attended were of such diverse races that they looked like they could have posed for an ad for the '80s clothing company Benetton. Going from that diverse community to Chapman University in Orange County, California, a school whose student body was overwhelmingly conservative, protestant and Caucasian was a shock for him. He often said that this transition was the beginning of his work on his landmark breakout film, the racial satire "Dear White People" (2014). What began as a Twitter commentary, a snide and caustic statement on white perceptions of black people, would become a funny, controversial film that would put Justin Simien on the map. But first he had to get there. He started as a publicist and marketing specialist for such entertainment companies as Paramount Pictures and Sony Films. His trailers for the films were noticed and he left marketing to take a chance in independent film development. It was during this period, in 2005, that Simien started on his first draft of "Dear White People" while developing his chops with a new series of short films, this time on the web. His editing skills came into play with "Rings," a short he did in 2006 that first got the attention of other filmmakers. By 2009 he had graduated to a web-based series of shorts, "Instant Messaging." Still working on his film idea, he continued to use Twitter to get feedback on his "Dear White People" script. The success of the short web films gave Simien the confidence to move forward with "Dear White People." Finding the funding to produce a feature-length film that was a satirical look at race relations wouldn't be easy, so he turned once again to the web, this time for funding. His Indiegogo campaign went viral and he was able to raise close to twice the funds he needed. The publicity from his campaign also helped to launch the film. It went on to be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent at the Sundance Film Festival, amongst others.