It almost feels like director Justin Simien was destined to direct Disney’s Haunted Mansion. As a young child, Simien’s mother took him to Walt Disney World in Florida where he fell in love with the attraction. Later, as Simien attended film school in California, he worked as a cast member at Disneyland in Anaheim. Considering Simien also has family in New Orleans, LA and is a life-long fan of Disney films, Haunted Mansion is a bit of a homecoming for the talented creator of the hit series Dear White People.
I had the opportunity to speak with Simien about his latest film, which is a loving homage to the classic attraction.
Although one might expect that a film based on a theme park ride would be superficial, Haunted Mansion has thematic and emotional depth that is unique for such films. “I felt like there was something really radical and subversive about putting a hero of color out there, who, the whole movie hinges upon his ability to feel his feelings, to appropriately grieve, and to give to another young Black kid, something that he clearly doesn’t have and was sort of taken away from him,” Simien said. “I thought that was a radical thing for people to see. And I knew that if that was a part of a big Disney tentpole film, then people would see that.”
Comparing star LaKeith Stanfield’s performance to Johnny Depp’s in Pirates of the Caribbean, Simien explained that Stanfield has the unique ability to make audiences care about his characters. “LeKeith has this incredible quality of pulling you into almost any kind of person, whether he is playing a plot person in Get Out, or he is playing a literal traitor to his race in Judas and the Black Messiah, you care about him and you love him deeply and you root for him, even if you don’t understand him…I thought he’d be perfect for it and I thought he’d be surprising because not everybody sees those different sides of him,” Simien said.
Of course, I had to ask Simien about Eddie Murphy, who starred in the first Haunted Mansion film, and whether there was any consideration in having Murphy appear in a cameo. “Of course. Of course. I wanted that, I would’ve loved that. It wasn’t in the cards but Eddie Murphy is one of those figures…his just existence in Hollywood as a self-actualized Black man who is not waiting for the approval of another figure in the movie, who is the star attraction, I mean he changed Hollywood,” Simien said. “He created a Hollywood that allows for a person like me to exist.”
Check out our full conversation below, read our review and watch Haunted Mansion in theaters July 28th.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
ABOUT HAUNTED MANSION:
Directed by Justin Simien, the film features an all-star cast ensemble cast including LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon and Daniel Levy, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto as The Hatbox Ghost.
Inspired by the classic theme park attraction, “Haunted Mansion” is about a woman and her son who enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts to help rid their home of supernatural squatters. The film’s producers are Dan Lin and Jonathan Eirich, with Nick Reynolds and Tom Peitzman serving as executive producers. The film opens in theaters on July 28.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.