On the Record with Keith Myers of Dear White People


Danny Evans, Arts Editor

Wednesday night, the Apollo Theatre screened Justin Simien’s lauded satirical drama Dear White People, which focuses on the experiences of Black students at an Ivy League university. The Review spoke on the phone with Keith Myers, who played the relatively small but crucial role of “Black Mitch” in the film and who grew up in nearby Wakeman, Ohio. Meyers discussed everything from his DJ alter ego to Simien’s distinctive directorial approach to drinking mochas at The Feve.

What’s the relevance of Dear White People in our current cultural climate?

I think any time somebody makes an honest attempt to address race, especially in the modern day, it’s gonna be relevant to somebody. And, obviously, the more people that see it, the more relevant it becomes. The fact that we had an awesome grassroots campaign helped too, [because the film] wasn’t thrown in people’s faces with big billboards and stuff like that. This word-of-mouth, grassroots campaign led to a lot of people being more trusting of it. I think we developed a great foundation for the movie, and despite how big it became it still wasn’t some big studio project that was kind of trying to force something down your throat. I think it was just saying, “Hey, this is one … artist’s opinion of what’s going on.”

Do you feel like the film has a special relevance at Oberlin and other colleges?

One of the first things I thought when I saw Dear White People was how great it would be if I was in college, and I got this movie handed to me by a professor. … I was in high school and college in the late ’90s, so we had our versions of these sorts of films, but I don’t think we had something this head-on. This movie really addresses a lot of things that are going on, especially to kids who are going through this sort of thing. I know a lot of the older generation will watch this movie and [say], “Oh, I didn’t even realize that these problems existed.” … But there are a lot of pop culture references and there is a hip tone to the movie itself, which I think helps when you deal with [these issues]. … I remember when I was in school, we had these really corny videos, you know? [Laughs.] And a movie like Dear White People deals with similar issues but in a hipper and more relatable way.

The way the film depicted pop culture definitely made it more accessible to me. The references and such helped me get in that mindset of taking the film’s subject matter seriously.

Yeah, it didn’t quite have that 50-year-old white dude perspective. [Both laugh.]

Do you feel like Dear White People is unique overall in terms of perspective? Is it coming from a place that differentiates it from most movies?

I think the topic of the movie is not necessarily unique. There are a lot of musicians, actors, writers and so on addressing [this topic]. What makes it unique is that Justin [Simien] had his own clear, direct vision of what he wanted to do. Of course he watched Spike Lee’s films, and of course he kept up with the blogs and things that were happening, all that stuff. He took all that information and experiences from his life and sort of put it into a big package and made a movie from it. I think that’s what makes it most unique: [Simien’s] very clear vision of what he wanted to do. I think the topic matter has been [depicted before]. But I don’t know if anybody has quite presented it to the public in this way before.

Can you tell us about the character you played? How did you get in character during the production process?

The guy I played, Mitch, people in the movie call him “Black Mitch.” I always listened to hip-hop when I was a kid. I grew up in Wakeman, which is down the street. There are like four cornfields surrounding my high school, and stuff like that. I was unique just because I was listening to that sort of music. So, I think the thing that I can relate to with this character is how out of place he feels, even in the modern era. Now, obviously, everybody knows white kids in the Midwest listen to hip-hop. But when I was growing up … [hip-hop] wasn’t out there. It wasn’t something that you could be interested in and not be ridiculed and made fun of or whatever. So I think that’s kind of how I approached it.

The guy I play, he hangs out with these kind of snobby, upper-crust white kids. But he’d probably rather be hanging out with kids from the Black Student Union. But, especially at an Ivy League level, there is a lot of segregation, even now. Certain groups of people always hang out with certain groups of people. This situation leads the guy that I play to have a specific idea of what Black is. I don’t think he’s trying to be Black, I think he just gets that [culture] more than he gets going to Harvard. You know what I mean? He understands hip-hop more than he does classical music … even though his parents maybe listened to [classical]. I created my own backstory for him and used that. Basically, Mitch is just looking for his place in the world, as the other characters are.

You mentioned growing up close to Oberlin, in Wakeman. Did you spend much time in Oberlin growing up? If so, how did the the artistic community affect you?

I think Oberlin really did have an insane effect on me. I went to Western Reserve High School, in Wakeman, and there wasn’t a big arts program there. Somehow, when I was about 15 or 16, a friend of mine took me to The Feve. We just sat there and drank mochas and watched all the weird people walking in and out. And I was kinda like, “This is awesome.” I was totally unaware of the relevance of Oberlin at the time; I had no idea what the school even was, or any of that stuff. I was just this kid who was very absorbent. At that time, I was listening to tons of music. I didn’t even know what being an artist meant. I didn’t know that a career in the arts was an option. But something about Oberlin made me gravitate towards there.

Once that happened once, I just kept coming back to The Feve. I still make it a point to go there. When I was going there, there was a really dirty pool table in the basement, and it had a way more dive-bar feel. It was very attractive to me. It wasn’t because I had read a Yelp review of it or something. I just walked in and was sort of blown away by all these unique people. So that was sort of my first experience where I realized, “Oh, there’s this whole world out there.” … My experiences in Oberlin were eye-opening for me. [I hope] some 15-year-old kid will stumble into the Apollo Theatre, see this movie and experience something similar.

Are you working on any artistic projects right now?

So, music is my first love in art in general. Growing up, I listened to it, I sang, I always felt gravitated toward it. Hip-hop was such a great discovery for me, because I got to watch it become something. That was a special thing as a kid growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. Our parents didn’t even know what it was. … I loved rock music, too. My parents were listening to soul and classic rock and things like that. So, I wasn’t just into hip-hop. Overall, music has always been a big part of my life. I still DJ in LA under the name DJ Moist. [Both laugh.] And I play a lot of the stuff I listened to in high school. My main wheelhouse is’90s R&B and hip-hop. It’s kind of weird that now that’s nostalgic. And I’m very versed in it. … I love that side of it. So that’s one thing that I’m continuing to do out here. I don’t do it for anything other than fun — I don’t take myself too seriously. Also, it’s pilot season out here right now, so it’s time to get some new work. That’s always the goal. I’m developing a few projects, and I’m writing a few pilots myself. I try to create my own work that way.

Do you have any advice for young actors or young artists in general?

Yeah! I think the thing is, you’re always going to be afraid [and] intimidated. Those feelings are always going to be there. The faster that you stand up to that bully that’s in your head, telling you that you’re not good enough or that you can’t do it, the easier it gets. I don’t think it ever goes away. I’m always battling my insecurities as an artist. But I’ve stood up to them enough that I know I’m able to win that wrestling match, at least some of the time. You know what I mean? It’s like when you see someone you’re attracted to at a party, and when you go home at night, you think, “I should’ve talked to them.” And the one time you do, you realize, “That wasn’t that crazy.” I think it’s the same thing. You have this idea as an artist, and because it’s gradual, and it’s yours, and it’s very real and raw, you think, “Should I really put my time into this? Should I write this down?”

My advice is to just do it. If you have an idea, put it on paper. If you’re a musician, get out your iPhone and at least record a bar or record a verse or a hook or a chorus. I know for me, when I’m creating something, it usually only takes one sentence or one idea for a character that I’m writing, or one moment of dialogue, or something like that; that’s my hook. And I can always go back to that hook as my foundation. … If you neglect your muse for long enough, it’ll stop talking to you. If you get inspired, don’t take that for granted. You’re really lucky as an artist to be able to hear that voice. I think everybody has it, but I don’t think everybody listens to it. If you keep telling your muse to shut up, eventually it will listen.