By ALLISON KUGEL
Her beauty is luminescent, her conviction fierce. It’s a potent combination and why actress Logan Browning’s portrayal of student activist Sam White in the hit Netflix series Dear White People has struck a chord with younger audiences. The series, based on the 2014 movie of the same name and also created by Justin Simien, seems custom-made to address the uproarious intersection where President Donald Trump’s politics and the Black Lives Matter movement collide. More important, beyond its pop culture relevance, is the show’s ability to humanise people and their collective point-of-view to a larger population of viewers.
Logan plays biracial Ivy League university student Sam White, host of a popular, albeit controversial, campus radio show titled Dear White People. Her character’s radio show within a television show is a platform for Sam’s grievances, bottomless questions and the racial and cultural issues that continue to surface on ethnically diverse college campuses around the world. It also serves as the show’s anchor point, introducing each episode’s message and plotline.
As Logan and I discuss the second season of Dear White People, streaming from May 4 on Netflix, we segue from her thoughts on acting and developing the character of Sam to social and political activism, the emotional triggers behind race and colour, and some of the most pressing issues that younger generations face in the age of social media and a relentless news cycle.
It becomes clear halfway through our conversation that Browning shares the values and concerns of her television alter ego, but with a graceful confidence and ease of spirit that continues to elude Sam in the show’s second season.
Typically, when I’m researching an actor, there’s a clear distinction between them and their character. With you, the unique challenge I faced is that I couldn’t clearly discern where your character, Sam White, ends and you begin.
That’s an interesting observation. During season one, I was much further away from who Sam is. A lot of my portrayal of Sam was coming from a place of discovery and nervousness at taking on this role that Tessa Thompson originally played [in the 2014 movie Dear White People]. In season two, part of me becoming comfortable with Sam was to stop fighting the parts of her that I thought were so different from me, when really they’re not. There are similarities between the two of us. With most characters I’ve played, I find myself pushing back on any similarities because I don’t want people to think I’m not playing a character. I find joy in bringing someone to life who’s very different from me. But part of why I ended up getting the role of Sam is because I do fall into who she is very easily. Though her perspective on life is different from mine.
In terms of how she responds to the world, and some of her reasoning within her debates. I do believe that the longer you play a character, the more they naturally bleed into your real life. I’m not surprised that some of who Sam is may show up in who I am. I find myself using some of the same quips that she does in my responses to things. I also find myself using what she says, like, “This has to be right, because Sam said it!”
Has she brought out the activist in you?
It’s made me more comfortable in being an activist. I’ve always been drawn to giving a voice and a face to people who aren’t seen or heard. I feel like that’s a part of what comes with being an entertainer and being in the public eye. When people say that actors and musicians shouldn’t be policy-adjacent, I think that perspective is ridiculous. They’re put in this position where they are in the public eye and people listen, so it makes sense that these two things go hand in hand. Because people are looking to my character for that, they naturally look to me. It would be a huge disappointment to people if they saw that I was not speaking out on certain issues.
Do you feel compelled to speak out because of the weight Dear White People holds with its audience?
If you scroll through my Twitter, I’ve been vocal all the way back. You can even dig up my MySpace, way before this show, and you’ll see! I watched the film Dear White People when it came out. I saw myself in Sam when I watched the film. Did seeing the character of Sam in the film influence me? Maybe it did. Playing Sam only aides in this burning desire I have to speak out. But I don’t feel compelled by it.
You feel empowered by it…
Yeah, I feel empowered by it, and I feel that being on a show like Dear White People makes me want to use my voice. I’m inspired by the people I’m surrounded by. I’m surrounded by so many young, influential artists who have great talent and great passion, and a desire to leave a mark that goes beyond their artistry. It’s a new kind of energy in comparison to when I first started acting at the age of 14.
What are some of the hot topics you guys discuss on set when you’re all off camera?
On set, honestly? We goof off. If you’re a person who knows what it’s like to live a life of trauma or a life of less than and difficulty, then you know that the best therapy is laughter. And that’s what we do, we laugh a lot. It’s a part of our culture. Black people together just have a good time. When you get black people together, they don’t want to have a depressing time. Yes, heavy conversations can happen, and they do happen a lot. Sometimes they’ll happen in our group texts or once an issue comes up. More serious conversations will happen when people ask us about the show and we talk about those topics with other people. I may read something that one of my cast-mates said in an interview, and then I’ll talk to them about it and say, “Hey, I didn’t know you were affected in that way. Tell me about it…”
Can you give me an example of an issue that’s come up?
I’ve always felt I understood and was aware of my privilege as a light-skinned person in this world, and in my industry. I was always aware of it, but I’ve realised that I was still missing the mark until I started to see some of what my fellow actors have said in interviews. I’ve realised that there’s a larger part of their experience than I was understanding. I want to make sure I’m not just being an ally to the black community, but also addressing these more specific issues that are even more nuanced than I’ve personally experienced.
Let’s talk about the nuance of colour within the black community. Being that you are light skinned and have green eyes, has there ever been a time in your life when you wished to have darker skin and dark eyes to fit in socially? Were there ever social consequences associated with your appearance?
I’ve been grateful to have the parents that I had growing up, and I’ve never had any kind of self-loathing in terms of wishing to be something else. But I definitely grew up in a place where I wished people treated me the way I wanted them to. If they were treating me like I didn’t fit in, then I just wished to be treated differently, but I never wished I looked different.
Were you treated as something “other”?
In both ways, I was. I’m on a spectrum. From white people I was treated a certain way, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Same for the African American community. I was accepted sometimes, and sometimes I wasn’t. It’s a spectrum that I exist on. It’s part of my experience, just kind of being stuck in the middle. As you get older it changes from wishing they would treat you differently to just trying to understand them, and not worrying as much about fitting in. You realise the reason you’re not fitting in is because you have a privilege that they don’t have. You have to understand their experience.
Your character Sam has mixed emotions about having a Caucasian father, and yet, she falls for a white guy on campus who has a similar energy to her father. She has mixed emotions towards both of those men in her life, and it’s an interesting parallel.
Absolutely. She feels so comfortable with Gabe because he reminds her of what she has been around her whole life. She’s been around a white male energy. In the same breath, she’s also been around African American male energy because of her mom and her mom’s family. Sam does feel that pull towards Gabe, possibly because of her dad. Yet, because she has also been exposed to the strength of a black man, she wants to be around that as well. It’s difficult for her to try to navigate that. Deeper than what Sam’s dad looks like, if you look at the characters of both Reggie and Gabe [both love interests], they both have an intelligence that is mirrored in her dad. The reason she leans more towards Gabe than Reggie is because Gabe challenges her like her dad challenged her.
What are your personal rules about dating your co-stars? Yay or nay?
Naaayyy! Number one, I’m more attracted to the opposite of myself. I’m attracted to more of an engineering mind. When you’re on a set, you’re falling for someone else’s character sometimes. I think [actors] forget that you’re in hair and makeup all day and you’re seeing people in their most glorified state, so it’s very easy to fall in love with anyone you’re around. I would never.
I found an older quote from you that reads, “I don’t want people to know how I’m feeling, because it makes you more vulnerable.” Are you still that way?
That was a part of something else I was saying, but I think that comes and goes with me. I know when it comes to being in a public space, I actually do like being really open with people. I feel like it’s my motive to educate the world that the people they see in the public eye are just like them, and they have issues just like them. I’m always trying to take celebrity off its pedestal. Even though there is power in it, I sometimes find myself trying to knock myself off any kind of pedestal I would ever be put on, because I don’t feel that way. So, in that way I do make myself open and vulnerable, and I feel like it does connect me to other people. I’m way more open publicly than I am if someone is trying to get to know me. I put my guard up and guard my heart. But there are certain personal things I can be vulnerable with. I don’t mind telling the world I get depressed sometimes. I don’t mind telling the world that I don’t live in a huge house. I don’t mind telling the world things that make me relatable. But there is a whole other part of Logan that I keep to myself, and that’s just because I want to be safe.
After the Parkland, Florida school shooting, some of the more outspoken students commented that the news media did not cover the diversity that exists at Stoneman Douglas High School. They focused their cameras on white students and white parents. What are your thoughts about this obvious exclusion?
Every single act of gun violence is absolutely terrible, but it’s just so interesting that these young people’s voices are finally being heard now. It’s like, really? Now? In 2018? I’m not bitter at all about the fact that this movement is happening now because any kind of talk is good, and any type of move towards progress I’m on board with. But it is one of those obvious things where images that are more palatable are the things that people want to talk about. I think that’s why a show like Dear White People is so important. It puts these coloured faces on the screen and forces the audience to begin to relate to these characters who possibly don’t look like them.
What do you hope Dear White People does for 18 to 21 year olds who are watching you from their college dorm rooms?
I hope that the show is comforting for that specific age group. I hope that it’s a love letter for them, so that they feel like their voices are heard and time-capsuled and represented. We’re not re-inventing the wheel. These kids already exist on college campuses, and they are being super active in terms of being activists. I hope they feel seen and it further encourages them to do the great work that they already plan to do. I really hope and pray that older people will watch as well so they can understand what 18 to 21 year olds are experiencing, and what their world is now. It’s reminiscent of what their world might have been when they were younger, when the civil rights movement was happening.
This new generation is experiencing everything on steroids because of our 24- hour news cycle. I think that is something the older generation needs to fully understand, if they don’t already.
We all are experiencing so much trauma and it’s not being addressed in terms of our mental health, especially kids. When I was in middle school, I would learn about what was going on if I came home and my parents happened to have the news on, or maybe if they were talking about it at school. But I didn’t have a device that was constantly telling me about everything happening in the world, 24/7.
Why do you think black men in our society are both feared and fetishised, simultaneously? This is a dynamic that’s depicted on your show, Dear White People.
Slavery. That sounds like something Sam would say, but it’s our history. You take any people out of their homeland and you make them a hot commodity. You’re selling them up on how strong they are, how big they are, how hard they work. America created this. They created that dichotomy of what they imagine a black man to be.
What storyline are you most excited for audiences to see in the second season?
Oh man, in a general sense, I love all of the characters’ stories and all of the individual storylines because you are really getting to know these people. I do love Coco’s storyline. I think it’s a great conversation starter. Every episode in the second season is a conversation starter, which is more what I look forward to than any one storyline. I just know I’m excited about the issues that are covered this season.
Finish this sentence: “Dear White People…”
It’s so funny, the other day Justin [Simien, Creator of Dear White People] said, “Dear White People, You’re Welcome.” I think it’s “Dear White People… whiteness, blackness; all of it is a creation. It’s a human device that we’ve created, and one that white people in history created and it’s malarkey.” It’s a factory now, one that we all have to mill about in, but it’s a complete fabrication. We have different experiences, yes, but we are all the same. In order to get to the point where we all see each other as the same, we would have to first go back and dissect every life experience we’ve each had before we can wipe the slate clean and say, “Yup. We’re all the same. Back to square one.” Whiteness and blackness are malarkey, but to get to that place we would have to better understand each other.
Season two of Dear White People premieres on May 4 on Netflix.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.