Words by Andreas Hale
Back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, writer and director Tahir Jetter premiered his film How To Tell You’re A Douchebag, which he wrote and directed based on his own challenges with dating in a social media world. The 28-year-old’s film occupies a unique space where technology meets urban social life and tackles it from the angle of bloggers and their pseudo celebrity. The film received critical acclaim and led to Jetter signing a deal with literary agency Verve in March. For those who weren’t able to make it to Park City, Utah for Sundance, Jetter’s film screened at the New Voices in Black Cinema festival in Brooklyn from April 21-24.
Douchebag’s story centers around Brooklyn freelance writer Ray Livingston (played by Charles Brice) and his womanizing ways. Scorned somewhat by his girlfriend’s confession that she’s in love with another woman, Ray goes full-blown douchebag while bedding multiple women. A chance encounter with the strong willed Rochelle (played by DeWanda Wise) puts Livingston in his place and leads to the inevitable chase.
With buzz for the film growing, WatchLoud sat down with the young filmmaker to get a better understanding of the film’s premise and inspiration.
WATCHLOUD: This movie was originally titled Occasionally Dating Black Women…
TJ: I’ll tell you what happened. The first title was How To Tell You’re A Douchebag. Then my producers said to name it Occasionally Dating White Women. But the main character [was] barely doing that so we changed it to Occasionally Dating Black women. But then I thought about how that particular title could be a dangerous thing. So finally as Sundance approached I talked to people that I trusted and with the racial tension going on in the country I thought we should change the title and let the name of the blog be emblematic of how much of a douchebag he is.
With the advent of social media did you realize that you were one of the few people dealing with this particular space of blogger and pseudo celebs dating each other?
Yeah, but I kind of dislike how much social media has been embedded into young people to the point where I don’t think we know how to socialize. I wanted to present social media as a character that was an omnipresent nuisance. It almost feels like a gimmick if you use social media too much or use it haphazardly. It’s this constant ubiquitous presence that encroaches on our social lives.
How did social media affect your dating life?
It’s terrible because I’m 28 now and I’ve been on social media for about five years. The prompts of courtship have changed. You can’t trust that if you go into a bar that you’ll meet somebody because nobody talks to each other anymore because they are all on their phones. People don’t really hang out and would rather be insular. That’s why people resort to online dating, which I find king of weird.
Do you realize that you are speaking to an audience that is both black and heavy social media users that hasn’t had a film speak to them?
That’s kind of why I made this film. There have been a lot of derivative movies that are a lot like Love Jones and a lot of times that are not specific. I can count on one hand the number of films that I’ve seen with young people of color under the age of 30 in the past 5-7 years. In the terms of romance that’s something films haven’t wanted to tackle. But there is a huge dearth of people living these stories. I’m into all kinds of movies but I’m interested in making a film for people who haven’t seen themselves in a movie for a long time. I think it’s smart business.
So was the blog something you created before or during the movie?
I started the blog after I made the movie to support it. I wanted to give my actor a point of reference so he can see what the character really thinks and where his mindset is. It was a thing that we could explore over a long period of time and the audience could also reference it.
The film starts with Ray’s split from his girlfriend Grace and that seemingly puts him into this douchebag zone. Did that happen to you?
Yeah. But I didn’t propose. There was a girl I was after and I was really into her. I took her out to dinner and I told her that I loved her and she responded that she was seeing another woman. I kind of choked. I thought this was something I couldn’t have written so I chose to lead the movie with it. But I didn’t want to use that as the cause of why Ray acts the way he does because he could have always been a douchebag well before this happens.
When we write about ourselves we are either really honest with ourselves or we lie and fabricate the things that happen in our past. How did you choose to handle this vulnerability?
It’s rough because I tried to dig deep and think about the type of person I want to be in the future versus how I’ve already been and treated people. The reason why guys respond to this movie is that we can all think of situations where we have been dismissive about people’s feelings.
Is the love interest (Rochelle) based on someone real?
She’s a composite of a lot of Brooklyn writers that I know who are very outspoken – especially on social media – and talk about a lot of things regarding sexism, male privilege and the issues that exist between black men and women. I’ve been on twitter since 2009 and I see how a lot of those people have come to prominence over the years. I used my knowledge of those women to shape the character. But the actual woman was one that I tried to date. The more specific interactions between Ray and Rochelle are more tailored to that relationship.
This film relates to guys who have a blog or write for a living. But what feedback have you received from the female viewers?
I don’t think the women feel that I’ve done enough for them, which I think is a fair criticism. I got a lot of criticism over Rochelle’s character. They don’t feel like she’s vulnerable enough. But I wanted to present Rochelle and (Ray’s other love interest) Yasmine as these opposites and the feeling that everyone compliments what everyone else doesn’t have. While being very Type A, Rochelle is also cold because maybe there’s something that she’s working through. Yasmine is much more open and vulnerable, despite her quirks that annoy Ray. I tried to supplement and round them out so the main person Ray was after wouldn’t look like a terrible shrew. The tough thing for me is that it is a coming of age movie that was set around a romantic comedy trope. So people are cued to want some evenhandedness in terms of how characters are presented.
I have a comedy called Wake & Bake which is a stoner comedy about two slackers who start a marijuana business that becomes the target of a congressman’s crusade to overturn the legalization. It’s like Half Baked and Raising Arizona. I also have a few other ideas I’m working on that I hope will come to fruition.