Justin Simien Says He Wouldn’t Have Directed Disney’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ Without a Black Leading Man

“I’m not telling a New Orleans-set story without a Black leader,” the “Dear White People” creator tells TheWrap

"Haunted Mansion"
"Haunted Mansion" (Credit: Walt Disney Company)

For director Justin Simien, his new film “Haunted Mansion,” based on Disney’s popular amusement park ride, hit a lot of the beats that he wanted to pursue as a filmmaker. For starters, it’s an ensemble comedy, it utilizes practical effects, it’s set in New Orleans and it features a predominately Black cast.

“My sense of Blackness is really rooted in Louisiana,” Simien told TheWrap. “That’s where my mom’s family is from. And I just felt like the version of New Orleans that I know and that I grew up with is beautiful and it’s Black. There’s something political and radical about realizing it properly in a movie like this that actually complements the ride and complements what the ride is trying to say thematically.”

The film tells the story of Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a grieving astrophysicist brought in to help a single mother (Rosario Dawson) deal with 999 happy haunts living in her new house. The ride was initially adapted into a film in 2003, with Eddie Murphy in the lead role, but Simien explained that while he was aware of that film, it wasn’t one he saw or drew from.

“I was maybe a little too old for the Eddie Murphy version of the movie when it came out,” he said. “But I live for Rob Minkoff, the director. I just put that stuff aside and just made the movie that was in front of me.”

Simien said that all things considered, having a Black leading man for his movie was a nonnegotiable. “I said there has to be a Black person, because this movie is set in New Orleans and New Orleans is an 85% Black town,” he explained. “I’m not telling a New Orleans story without a Black leader, I’m just not going to do it.”

Simien revealed that he created a list of people he’d love to work with and settled on LaKeith Stanfield because of his ability to play “strange, sort of impenetrable characters” that pull the audience in. The director recalled telling Stanfield, “You’re the guy that’s gonna make me care about someone who doesn’t like people and is grieving.”

Simien said he believed the role was a chance, similar to Johnny Depp’s performance in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, for Stanfield to show a different side of himself.

“I know you’re charming, and you’re hot, and you’re ready to be a big ol’ movie star,” Simien remembered saying. “Let’s surprise some people who maybe don’t know that side of you.”

“Haunted Mansion” hits theaters July 28.