With a unique and thought-provoking voice, visionary storyteller Justin Simien continues to redefine the film narrative. It started with Dear White People, his breakout film debut that earned him the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and became a hit Netflix series. While the Haunted Mansion director continues to explore race and identity in films like Bad Hair and Queer for Fear, he is also working on movies that speak to every viewer. Here, Simien talks with EBONY about authenticity, actualization and apparitions.
EBONY: Why is it important for Black filmmakers to make movies that aren’t just Black stories?
Justin Simien: Like anything in Hollywood, you get put in boxes and sets of expectations. But I grew up on movies with people who didn’t look like me, and there’s something about film that makes the individual universal. It’s part of how we feel empathy for each other. When you see people who maybe look or talk or act differently than you do go through the same kind of emotional journey, you suddenly have empathy for people whom you didn’t have access to, so I think that’s essential. It opens us up to our neighbors and our humanity. I think it’s one of the most important aspects of what I do.
You are a writer, producer and director. Which hat do you prefer the most?
I’m a director who writes and produces because I have to. The scripts that come to me are different than the scripts that go to other folks. I’m not gonna wait around between the Haunted Mansions for somebody to hand me the perfect script. I’m gonna go out there and make my movie, no matter what. I’ve wanted to tell stories visually since I was a kid, even before I knew that directing was a job people could get.
How important is it to control the narrative of Black stories? Some may be traumatic and some may be in Black joy.
Cinema is so specific, so subjective and so individualistic that you get variety. When you let Black folks in, we’re applying our point of view to maybe the same stories, but that’s the joy. I learned how to direct in theater, and there are a billion different ways to do Romeo and Juliet. It’s all about execution.
In Haunted Mansion, which is out on DVD and Blue-Ray, you found a way to have Black people stay in a haunted house! How fun was it to make this movie?
I love that you picked up on that. The fact that it is a cast of people of color predominantly does change the dynamic a little bit. It was fun to put all of that in there, and the joy for me, honestly, was the cast. It was such a delight working with these people. I grew up on ensemble comedies, and they kept it so alive and so fresh for me.
What references did you use to make the film about ghosts and past spirits?
A formative memory is going to Disney World in Florida as a little kid and riding on The Haunted Mansion. And I worked at Disneyland in college. You have films like The Haunting, the classic 1963 film that puts together many of the tropes we expect in a haunted house movie. And then with movies like Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters and Clue, Haunted Mansion isn’t a horror movie; it’s an ensemble comedy. It just takes place in a world with ghosts. I tried to channel both of those frequencies.
What supernatural experiences have you had in your own life?
I grew up Creole Catholic in Houston, Texas, so ghosts and the supernatural and intervention by saints were the fabric of my daily life; there was never a distinction. Interestingly, my father died when I was young, and I have a half-brother. His name is Rick. And my husband’s name is Rick. And I did not know until very recently that they were both born on the same day, June 22. It feels like my dad had a hand in picking the right one for me.
What project would you love to do love to get your hands on?
I might be writing it now. I’ve had a fun journey over the last 10 years working on all sorts of things that I didn’t necessarily invent from the ground up. And one of the things I got to do during this writer’s strike, and I know I’m not alone in this, is to tend my own garden a little bit. I like what I’m finding. My first movie was a college movie. My second movie was a campy horror movie. Haunted Mansion is a family film. The next one might be a little darker. I’m still tending and cultivating.
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