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Dear white person: want to be in a movie?

Just two years after graduating from Yale, Justin Dobies ’12 has a role in one of the most talked-about movies of the season. You can see him in Dear White People, playing, well, a white person.

The movie, writer and director Justin Simien’s feature film debut, shows racial tensions at the fictional Winchester University boil over when white students throw an “unleash your inner negro” party. While the film does not open nationwide until Friday, it has already taken home awards from the Sundance Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival. A. O. Scott of the New York Times calls itas smart and fearless a debut as I have seen from an American filmmaker in quite some time,” and its score with critics on Rotten Tomatoes is currently hovering somewhere between 97 and 100 percent.  

Dobies says his role in the film is a lucky coincidence. He had been acting in New York, working mostly on Shakespeare and classical theater, when he went home to visit family in Minneapolis. While there, he walked into a commercial casting agency and asked if they would be interested in representing him. They said, “Sure, why not?” he recalls.

Within a week, he had auditioned and been cast in Dear White People, which was filming in Minneapolis, and was almost immediately thrown into shooting his first film. “It was a very, very crazy right-place-in-the-right-time kind of thing.”

In the limited time he had to prepare, Dobies read books he knew had influenced Simien in writing the movie, including Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness. “Because the movie is a satire, it takes place in a heightened reality in which people are talking about race in a way they wouldn’t in real life,” Dobies says. “It was important to get into that headspace.” 

Dear White People was shot on a shoestring budget and under very tight time restrictions. Dobies was present for more than half of the total days of film photography as an actor, and he was later brought on to do stunt direction and fight-coordinating work for one of the final scenes, featuring a frat-party brawl.

Dobies plays Gabe, who he described as “the secret white lover” of protagonist Sam White. The characters’ relationship evolves over the course of the film and allows them to have a very different kind of conversation from the extremely public racial dialogue of the rest of the movie, he says.

Dobies says the experience has made him more conscious of the status being a straight white male confers on him, in the film industry as well as in life. 

“I’ve sort of hit the jackpot in terms of being the thing that people are always making movies about,” he says. “This movie made me a lot more aware of stories that don’t fit that mold.”

And while acknowledging that the movie’s title might be off-putting to some white people, who will assume the film is simply a diatribe intended to provoke white guilt, Dobies says the film’s actual message is far more expansive — and complicated. The title comes from a controversial radio show hosted by the main character, but the movie unpacks how a whole host of characters respond to its provocations, showing the multiplicity of identities that exist in a single racial group.

“It explores identity in a post-Facebook work in which you really focus on how you represent yourself. You leave the theater feeling entertained and a little uncomfortable and hopefully having laughed a great deal,” Dobies says. “You feel like you need to talk it out.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.


Filed under Justin Dobies, Dear White People, film, race
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