HOW TO TELL YOU’RE A DOUCHEBAG is not your typical Sundance Film: no one has a terminal disease, it’s not about the injustices of poverty, or even a bold revisitation of some genre or decade old style of filmmaking. It’s actually a ‘commercial’ film. In a year dominated by so many somber stories, writer/director Tahir Jetter’s film stood out at Sundance as an insightful examination of daily life, a particular take on dating in this modern age. The sharp characters jump right off the screen, people with oceans of life behind their introductions, real men and woman that the audience becomes anxious to watch duke it out. It was some of the most fun I had in Park City.
Ray Livingston (Charles Brice), a freelance blogger whose ‘Occasionally Dating Black Women’ is notoriously frank about his interactions with the opposite sex, accidentally picks a fight with feminist writer Rochelle Marseilles (DeWanda Wise). When his apology leads directly into a very tempestuous relationship, he finds it difficult to keep their private interactions off his very public blog. This is a story about dating in the modern age. I have to say, being happily married for over ten years now, I honestly pity anyone out there trying to meet someone right now. Jetter’s film completely captures that, at its most hilariously painful. It’s a bit like watching ‘Black Swingers.’ Can you imagine how much worse Jon Favreau’s character would be in this age of smart phones and text messages and facebook? “I only watched Swingers two years ago,” Jetter tells me, “and I’m glad that I did because I think that I empathized with it more, just floundering as you work your way through this very nebulous career that seems to avail no opportunity”
I had a chance to sit down with Jetter in Park City to discuss his film, capturing, I think, exactly the plight of being single in the modern day. We talked on and on, until I realized that in this current climate of #OscarsSoWhite we should probably talk about although HOW TO TELL YOU’RE A DOUCHEBAG is a black film, which it is very definitely is, being a fuck-up at dating is totally universal. “There’s very few representations of non-white people at a younger age being positioned in not only coming of age dramas, but movies where they’re just trying to find themselves in a funny way,” says the writer/director, “I’d never seen anything like a ‘Black Swingers,’ so I was very excited about that and I think that a lot of people can relate to it.”
Ray, as a character, is not very good expressing himself. Sure, on his blog he can compose diatribes about how dating should work and what’s wrong with his perspective partners, but to their face, he’s a bit of mumble monster. He puts himself out as a player but really he’s not a good player. “I think that what appealed to me about this guy,” the director explains, “he does want to be better at a great many things, and that’s part of his charm, floundering in the mediocrity that is his life at present.” Jetter never lets anyone off the hook, everyone is taken to task for their own variation of being ‘douchy.’ Rochelle has every reason to be mad at Ray for his behavior and his blogging about it, but she is also living with a man essentially in a fake relationship, which she fails to mention when they first go out. “I wanted to suggest that there was a certain degree of complexity with regard to what everyone wants, what they expect, and what they actually do in terms of how they pursue what they desire,” Jetter says, “everybody across the board does have the capacity to be douchy, or at least if not douchy, inconsiderate.” In the hazy courtship whirlwind that everybody is in, nobody is really going to get what they want. “I feel like that is really reflected in what it’s like to date in the modern age,” he says, “we’re always the flipside of what someone else wants.”
Of course, I feel like today it’s a lot easier to be douchy and get away with it than it was in the past, so much of communication is done remotely. Between social media sites being the new bar or dance club, the way we interact is so detached. “Dating sucks,” Jetter declares, “you feel as if you can drift into a community of digital people and that can sustain you in ways that interacting with people in the real world can not.” The director points out ‘ghosting,’ ceasing all communication suddenly with someone you are dating as a form of breaking up, would never have happened ten years ago. With so many choices to search for your next date – OK Cupid, Tinder, whatnot – it’s easy to just burn bridges and move on. “I’ve had some success dating online,” the director admits, “but I think that it almost makes you feel that there’s this endless kind of cavalcade of people, that you can draw from. It makes people a little bit more flippant with regard to how they pursue serious relationships.” You always hear ‘there’re more fish in the sea,’ and now it’s not a sea, it’s an ocean. “It’s an ocean that you can access with the touch of a swipe,” the director says, “which is a very kind of disarming thing because in New York you’re in a city that’s chock full of people, attractive people. You walk into a bar and even if you were interested in pursuing someone, people aren’t really interested in engaging with you on that level because they’re so used to interacting with others in their virtual world that kind of sustains them.”
Talk about reliant, how many phone numbers do we know? We can call anyone without looking up their number. I couldn’t even tell you my wife’s number, and I call her a few times a day. But Jetter says it goes even further than that. “I’m 28, but everyone younger than me,” he cautions, “they’re really fucked, because they hate talking on the phone. Everyone hates talking on the phone now. You meet people online. You have myriad exchanges and then you finally meet up but people don’t wanna call. And it’s like, how am I supposed to know that we have any kind of chemistry or a capacity for a rapport if I can’t hear your voice or if I can’t hear your humor or if I can’t hear how quick witted you are?”
All of this leads to Jetter’s character Ray only truly finding his voice online, in his blog. “I did a little blogging for Ebony, about fitness, because I used to be a personal trainer,” explains Jetter, “it’s a small community of bloggers of color that write for different publications all over New York, and I started to meet these people and befriend them.” The writer/director says it was very clear that some of them were more talented than others. “You’d have a friend that would make a career out of being a blogger,” he says, “and you would think, ‘Wow, this person could write a book.’ And you’d have another friend whose kind of career Ray’s character is based on, and you read his stuff and you’re like, ‘Ugh- holy shit, this is the writing that you’re moving forward with?’ Because it’s really not that great, but you’re branding yourself as a writer.” Jetter tailored Ray’s whole approach to how important he thought the things he was writing about were.
And to really understand Ray, he had to actually write as Ray, for Ray’s blog. That’s right, Occasionally Dating Black Women is a real thing, you can read it online. Jetter explains: “I oddly used to watch Sex in the City; you don’t actually know if Carrie, what’s her face, is a good writer or not. You always see the end of what she’s writing, as exhibited by her voiceover or whatever. But you don’t know whether she’s a banal writer, or whether she’s decent but just she writes about stupid subjects.” The director thought, when he knew they were doing the movie, a good companion piece of literature could be to make Ray’s blog real. Which is a bit like getting to actually read Doogie Howser’s diary.
Friends would respond to Jetter’s writing as if it was a real blog; some of it was based on things that were happening in his life, others articles were complete fabrications. “The voice of the character was like I took some of the worst thoughts that I’ve had and made them even more chauvinistic,” he divulges, “I tried to give it a certain kind of humor and certain kind of truth that would speak to the state of mind in which this character had found himself. So, some if it’s real, some of it’s not, but it’s, you know, it’s all very entertaining.”
“Occasionally Dating Black Women” was actually almost the title of the film. “When I first came up with the movie, “How to Tell You Are a Douchebag” was the official title,” Jetter says, “it was branded on everything.” Then one of the producers suggested naming it after the blog, because Ray is a blogger, and it’s kind of a play on words, he’s not really dating these women, he’s just meandering and having these very half-hearted relationships. “But then, after we got into Sundance,” he continues, “I started talking to some of my blogger friends about it, they were like, ‘given the tenor of the things that are going on in this country, it’s probably wiser that you don’t do that … people may think you’re an enemy of black women.’ That’s not something that I wanted to express.” Jetter is right, the whole film is basically about taking a chauvinist to task. So he decided to revert to the old title. “I think that has served us better,” he says, “if for no other reason than the fact that like people here at Sundance are more curious.”
Jetter finds it refreshing that the film has played very well to different ethnicities. “You want people to see themselves universally,” he says, “despite the fact that the cast is predominantly comprised of people of color.” It’s not a political film, he tells me, but it would be impossible to tell this story with these characters without a bit of that in the background. One moment I enjoyed particularly is Ray complaining about the gentrification of Brooklyn, and being priced out of his own neighborhood. “I’m a gentrifier,” Jetter says, “I’m from a middle-class background, and I felt an interesting interaction with people that were lower income than I, in whose neighborhood I moved, because I felt like an outsider.” He felt like he was encroaching on and was not really a part of their community. Then as the neighborhood changed, got even more gentrified, he started to feel like the outsider. “That’s something that is very top of the mind for a lot of people of color,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be like an acrimonious/hostile relationship, but I think it’s something that’s often on our minds. You start to see Crown Heights Brooklyn turn into the Upper East Side, bagel shops pop up where there wasn’t even like a decent supermarket, you can’t help but be aware of those things.”
This becomes the back drop of the film, a neighborhood in the midst of the constant ebb and flow of shifting population patterns. The men in HOW TO TELL YOU’RE A DOUCHEBAG have difficulty holding on to something, calling something theirs. And they always seems a step behind the women who are all too aware of what almost seems to be the gentrification of the dating scene. Jetter’s film is very honest about what is known, unfortunately, as ‘trading up.’ “It’s like Kanye says in that song, as soon as you get on, you leave her for a white girl or whatever,” says Jetter, “there’s always a tension in the black community between what happens when you trade up.” The director wanted to be sure to include that strain in the film, because it is very much a part of the dating scene. “I’m very active on Twitter,” he says, “and there’s a huge subculture of Black intelligentia on Black Twitter and whenever there’s a black male celebrity who’s with a white woman, there’s always a conversation.” Jetter is very aware of the perception that black men, as they move forward in their careers, “abandon black women as they try to reach a certain degree of upward mobility. And, you know, on the flipside, I think a lot of black men are annoyed that black women choose to date outside the race as well.” He didn’t want to turn the film into a polemic or didactic piece, but this is just one shade of the background these men find themselves dating in. “I wanted to just highlight it,” he says, “because it’s something that I think people talk about all the time.”
Which is what is so amazing about Jetter’s film. Anyone who has dated in the last ten years, WILL SEE themselves in it. Part of what has been so frustrating for me with this whole #OscarsSoWhite discussion is that it’s not just the OSCARS – it’s the whole industry. It’s the way they promote films to a segregated marketplace. THE WEDDING RINGER was one of the funniest films of last year, it should have had the push any Seth Rogen film gets, but instead it got, pardon the word, ghettoized. “Totally,” Jetter agrees, “because they know that Kevin Hart is a draw for the black community. So, I think you find yourself being very often pigeon-holed if you have a black cast. Try as you might, the industry has its tradition of moving people into one box or the other.”
HOW TO TELL YOU’RE A DOUCHEBAG premiered in the NEXT section of Sundance, which was really the right choice, because although the film itself is rather commercial (this is a good thing), it’s writer/director Tahir Jetter is one of the brightest lights to emerge from Sundance this year. He refuses to be boxed. He is a true student of film, but also a delicate crafter of character, capable of capturing the most vivid and realistic portraits of the modern single. It is really the best film I’ve seen about dating since… well, “Swingers.”