A Chat with 'Dear White People' Star Logan Browning About Representation, Defying Labels, and the Problem With "Woke"
05 May 2017
Dear White People is an incredibly timely new dramedy series based on Justin Simien's whip-smart 2014 indie satire of the same name that just dropped on Netflix. The series centers on a group of students from diverse backgrounds living in a traditionally African-American house at a fictional Ivy league university, following them as they navigate complicated friendships, tangled love lives, uncomfortable self-discovery, and the realities of being a person of color in a majority white space. Yes...there is hair-touching. Equal parts A Different World and The Breakfast Club, the show is incredibly welcoming, hilarious and intersectional, with each episode taking the perspective of a different character as they cope with escalating racial tensions following a blackface party on campus. At the center of this incredible ensemble cast is Logan Browning who plays Sam White, biracial campus activist, filmmaker, and host of the the titular college radio show who is determined to expose racism and hypocrisy on this supposedly liberal, progressive campus. We sat down with Browning to talk all about playing Sam, working with Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, handling the Internet trolls, and the the problem with "woke."
How did you end up getting involved in Dear White People?
I just auditioned like every other actress, it wasn't anything fancy. When I saw this script pop in my inbox I didn't believe it! I had already seen the film, so when I walked into the audition, I really wanted to get the role of Sam White. I went all out in terms of my wardrobe, I put my hair in a pompadour, I was reading MLK speeches – I was so zoned in on getting this role.
So Sam's sort of the poster child for "woke" black activism on her campus, but her ideas and methods are constantly being challenged by her friends and her peers in the other black student groups. The show really problematizes the idea that there's one correct response to racist systems and behavior. I'm wondering what you think of the concept of "woke" and if the show challenged any of your beliefs?
For one, I love/hate the word "woke." I mean, it challenges the person that is saying it and the person that is receiving it with whether or not they are whatever that word means. I believe that to be woke is to be awakened and enlightened on a particular subject, but really, no one is ever truly forever awakened. I think it's a constant ebb and flow. Sometimes you see things and read things and you're jolted back into this heightened sense of awareness, but then you become lackadaisical, you go on with your life, and you forget. It's still inside of you, but not as active in your mindset. The idea of woke to me is a little strange...and hey, maybe it's that I'm not fully woke! Maybe I'm in that space of sometimes I am/sometimes I'm not, and maybe I'm getting there. Maybe that's what Sam taught me, that it is a constant learning process, which I am completely OK with.
Dear White People is really intersectional and it depicts so many dynamic relationships. Sam's conflict with her former best friend Coco, who went to an elite, mostly white private school and is seemingly far more interested in assimilation than revolution is especially compelling. Your impression of Coco and their friendship changes so much over the course of the season. Can you talk a little bit about their relationship?
I LOVE Sam and Coco. I love that you got to see their backstory. You see these two girls, who, like you said, come from two completely different places to meet at this similar point. How many times do you make a friend, and you become so close so fast that you miss some of the foundations of who that person really is? Then you discover that you don't know how to be their friend. You don't know how to meet their specific needs. And that's important in friendship – you can't treat everyone the same. A true friendship and a real friendship is understanding everyone's past, and I think that by the end of the season, that's why the two women are able to have more of a commonality, because they understand each other more than freshman year.
They come together in the end to watch that amazing Scandal spoof, Defamation together.
What you realize at that moment is that these two women met at that intersection of life, grew apart, and then were reacquainted by an event that devastated them in similar ways. It's interesting how that kind of tragedy can bring people back together.
On that note, both the original Dear White People film and the show were filmed during the Obama presidency, and I think you can feel that in the tone to some degree. I heard that the show wrapped on election day, and I'm wondering what that was like for you and the cast on set?
Oh man... I mean WOW! So wrap day was exciting, right? Because it's wrap day, it's election day, you think it's gonna be a great 24 hours all-around. All of us got up super early, we went to vote, we started our day later, we got to work, we were passing out gifts, there were food trucks – it was like a party! And then we're all following what's going on, and gradually the mood just began to shift. It became more difficult to get work done, which is a problem because it's our last shooting day. And then it got to the point where it was that Twilight Zone, "I'm not sure if this is earth" moment. I remember we were actually filming a pickup scene with me and John Patrick Amedori (who plays Gabe) from the first episode where he comes into the editing room to see me watching the footage of the blackface party. I literally had to take John Patrick, pull him outside and say, "We have to exit this." This does not exist for us right now. We cannot succumb to this energy, because we're filming something that, even in the show, happens in the beginning of our character's storylines. We have to be in a completely different headspace. We pulled it together, but as soon as we wrapped, I went to my friend's house to watch the news and I was hyperventilating on the floor, bawling. That was a crazy whirlwind of a day.
When the first trailer came out in February, there was a sort of hysterical faux outrage response from some corners of the internet, involving a half-hearted campaign to boycott Netflix. I'm wondering how you coped with that craziness, and how it feels to have the the actual show out in the world so people can see what its really all about?
When the date announcement first came out, I was honestly a little surprised that those were the clips Netflix chose, because they didn't really give a good idea of what the show's journey is. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with that date announcement! So when I started reading the comments, it was pretty overwhelming in the sense that so many people were responding to it, moreso than even the comments themselves. I was more wowed at it going a million views a day! That was pretty insane to me, I'm like "Where are these people?" But ultimately you can't make people do anything. You can't force anything on anyone, so all the people who felt the way they did were either going to watch the show or not. It's gonna pop up on their Netflix and they're either gonna press play or they don't. I guess I was unbothered by it! I actually recorded a video that I'm going to post eventually that I recorded on February 10th where I say "Remember that time when everyone thought the show was racist and then they watched it and realized it was the complete opposite? Oh wait, it's not April 28th [the release date] yet."
I'm really excited that now that so many people have gotten the chance to see it and understand that the show isn't really specifically even about race alone, it's more about these students and their identities and the intersections of their lives and relationships. It's really more about the black experience in college.
Barry Jenkins directed a very moving episode in the series, where the outside world sort of crashes into this presumably safe space during a party, and one of the character's lives is threatened by a police officer. What was it like to work with Barry?
Barry Jenkins is just king. I still can't believe we even worked with him! He actually sent us to a screener of Moonlight, which we watched during our season, and it really inspired me to be more artful going back into work. I unfortunately didn't get to work a lot with Barry. In that episode, I'm in the beginning and I'm around the party and that's kind of it, so I really envy the rest of my cast who worked closer with him, and I'm just praying he comes back for season two! His energy is so cool on set. The way he directs, the way he connects with actors--which is so important because a lot of directors really don't know how to work with actors. They may be really technical and get this great shot, but if you can't connect with your actors as well, you're not gonna get great performances out of them.
That episode was so gutting.
When we were filming it, it felt so real that after a take, there'd be a cut and all the cast would be in tears. Even if our characters weren't in that place, when we cut a scene we were in tears bawling for 15 minutes at a time, walking outside, sitting on the curb crying together, by ourselves, saying "I can't be around you, I need to be by myself, I need you to hug me"... it was intense! We needed therapy after that one.
Do you have a favorite scene from Season One?
I really did enjoy my monologue [on the radio show after the black face party] in episode one, because that's what I lived with the longest. That was my audition piece. It changed a little bit from audition to filming, but just connecting to that material as Logan, as Sam. That I'm the voice of my comrades on campus and also young people everywhere, black people everywhere, hurt people everywhere. That meant so much to me, to be able to say those words that not a lot of people are able to articulate.
Justin Simien was really able to say something with those words that I think really lends itself to empathy rather than apathy for people. It's difficult, I think, when you're watching, maybe as a white person, thinking "God, why is this all targeted towards me." You get defensive naturally. But when you watch a monologue like that, you're able to see into someone else's heart and to empathize with them, and say, "Let me listen, let me understand what this other person is going through." And that's really how we change! Change is really just understanding each other, and that's why I think that was so important and special for me to film.
That leads so beautifully to my next question! Aside from sheer entertainment of course, what do you want people to take away from the series?
Well, definitely entertainment, but beyond that, thinking of being empathetic rather than defensive when an oppressed group of people raises their voice about their concerns. Also, not to judge people or label them by their aesthetic. What the show does so well is to show you these people that have all these different nuances. You may see Coco in episode one and assume she's one type of person, and by the end, you understand her and that initial impression completely changes. Even with Sam, you see her come full circle by the end. Labels are so hard! I label myself, I label other people and it's kind of a sucky place to live! I know that they say on the show that "without labels people would drink Windex" but sometimes you just want to be free and live your life, and not have to put yourself in a box.
Season One of Dear White People is available now on Netflix.
Splash image via Adam Rose / Netflix