At a time when viewers tend to digest new shows in a single, gluttonous sitting, there can be one downside to appearing in a Netflix original series.
“I want to know what it feels like to have that Netflix feeling where you see a new show come up and hear that it’s something you should binge and then you do,” said Logan Browning, the star of the stream service's Dear White People, which dropped recently. “I’m a little jealous that I don’t get that experience.”
It seems a small price to pay for the 27-year-old Atlanta native. When the date announcement and accompanying teaser for Dear White People premiered in February, it broke the record for those of any Netflix videos, garnering a million views a day (and its share of controversy). The ten episodes certainly lived up to the positive hype. Based on the 2014 satirical film of the same name by Justin Simien, who is also the show’s creator, Dear White People follows a group of black students at the predominantly white, Ivy League-inspired fictional Winchester University who are grappling with the deeply embedded and sometimes unconscious racism within their tony, liberal academic environment.
When a group of their classmates participate in a black face party, it sets off a firestorm of reactions, protests and dialogues that probe issues of race, class, police brutality and cultural appropriation.
The show’s title Dear White People comes from the opening address of a radio program by Browning’s character Samantha White in which she instructs, both teasingly and sincerely, her white classmates in what is and is not an acceptable way of interacting with the black student body and African-American culture as a whole.
A film studies major and activist, Samantha is the center point around which the episodes’ actions revolve. And much like the series’ tone—witty, biting, but still poignant in its aims—Samantha is not easy to pin down: a biracial young woman with a white boyfriend and a prominent campus presence, her mouthpiece seems employed as much in service of her cause and as it is for her own insecurities.
“I think Sam’s makeup has a lot to do with her persona on campus. She’s literally half made up of over 200 years of guilt and half made up of over 200 years of rage. And as a light-skinned black woman she’s had to decide—society unfortunately makes you decide it—are you going to hang out with mostly white people and assimilate into European culture and standards? Or are you going to try and fit into a mostly black group?” said Browning.
“Sam is a black woman. She does have black woman experiences in terms of racism and oppression and just general bias. But she doesn’t know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned black woman. And I think Sam does feel really stuck and she makes up for that by being so loud.”
Indeed, the protests that Sam encourages and the pot of discontent she vigorously stirs is called out as unproductive later in the series, prompting the question of what is the best way to deal with injustice. Is it through loud voices? Or open ears? Sam herself doesn’t have the answer.
“Just because you’ve had a good intention doesn’t mean it always materializes into something positive. And that is part of activism. And that is part of the Millennial movements,” explained Browning. “Everyone wants to have a voice and speak up and be a part of change. But it can be a slippery slope when Twitter fingers turn to trigger fingers. Sometimes you just have to stop and think.”
It’s advice that those reacting negatively to the show’s date announcement might have heeded. Back in February, the series’ provocative title and teaser video incited a backlash response from those deeming the show racist against white people and calling for a boycott against Netflix. Browning, while not thrown by such opinions—“I wasn’t surprised that there are racists in the world,” she noted, wryly—was taken aback by their numbers.
“We live in a world where you say ‘black,’ you say ‘white,’ you say anything and people get mad. We’re in a very hyper sensitive place. And I don’t know why people don’t just stop and think, ‘This is art. This is an art form. Let me see what this is actually about before I become defensive.’ Pause,” she said, adding of her reaction, “It was an 'Aha' moment of 'Wow, this show really is necessary.'”
Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Browning was always drawn to acting. Her mother put her in a performing school and while at a convention at Los Angeles, an agent spotted her and suggested she move there. Her parents, trusting their then 14-year-old daughter, agreed. “I don’t think they would have sent me to L.A. as a young teenager if they thought I was going to be doing crack,” she said, laughing.
Browning’s first gig was a guest role on the WB show Summerland and others soon followed. She attended Vanderbilt University—“Vandy” as she calls it—for a year before moving back out to Los Angeles and landed leads in Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns and the VH1 show Hit the Floor.
Dear White People depicts the struggles African-Americans face in breaking free from stereotypes and race-determined identities and this is certainly something Browning has grappled with professionally: the idea that a black actor can play a fully fleshed-out, developed character instead of a token, ancillary part.
“It wasn’t until probably 2007 when I started to be a part of roles [where] I felt like I really got to have a character and truthfully, those were black shows…The times are changing. It’s kind of a polarizing change, which some of my fellow white actress friends are bewildered by,” says Browning. “They comment on how everything is broken down as looking for ethnic and diverse. And I’m honestly okay with it because it’s been like that for everyone else for a really long time. I do hope there is a time when everyone can go into a room and the breakdown is just person, characteristics. Not based on your race or your looks or your height or your whatever. But it does take some navigating to get to that point.”
In the meantime, Browning has felt the increased power of her voice, professionally and socially. As someone who has always spoken out on issues of injustice that anger her, she is keenly aware that the more than half a million followers she has amassed on Instagram are affected by her message choices. And leading the cast of Dear White People has only added to the sense of responsibility she feels to represent those who feel marginalized.
“You can’t be on a show like Dear White People and not be conscious and aware of the things going on,” Browning said. “It’s almost not as satisfying, I think, as a viewer to see the people on the show if they weren’t a part of the movement.”
Watch: David Bowie Homage: Willow Smith, Zendaya, and Kiernan Shipka's Heartfelt Rendition of "Changes"