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Logan Browning, who stars as documentary film student and campus radio host Samantha White (the role played by Tessa Thompson in the original 2014 film), joins the podcast to talk about her own college days (she spent a year at Vanderbilt) and what playing the campus firebrand has taught her. “The thing that I would probably take from the show is compassionate empathy,” Browning tells host and senior editor Rebecca Sun. “She has no problem saying her truth, and she does it with good intentions, to protect people. And sometimes she’s wrong, and she gets to learn from that and evolve.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s new culture writer, Evan Nicole Brown, also joins the show to shed some perspective on her own college experience at Bard. Both Browning and Brown chose to attend PWIs (predominantly white institutions), and the two discuss how their experience differed from those who attended HBCUs.
“I was really attracted to Bard’s literature program, which is what I ended up majoring in,” Brown explains. “I always knew that I was choosing the program and education I was going to get at Bard more than the community. I knew that I was going to lose something and let something go by choosing a school like Bard over an HBCU like Howard. … It’s a tradeoff that never really ends in life.”
Catch up on all the episodes of Hollywood Remixed, including last week’s discussion about undocumented immigrant narratives with Define American founder Jose Antonio Vargas and Blue Bayou director and star Justin Chon, and subscribe to the show on the podcast platform of your choice to be alerted when new episodes drop.
Episode 2×6: Logan Browning – “From School Daze to Dear White People: The Different World of Black College Narratives”
Intro music: Jaunty, upbeat chords interspersed with the sound of a DJ scratching a record back and forth on a turntable. A voice faintly hollers in the background: “Hollywood Remixed!”
Rebecca Sun: Welcome to Hollywood Remixed, a topical podcast about inclusion and representation in culture and entertainment. I’m Rebecca Sun, senior editor of diversity and inclusion at The Hollywood Reporter. Here on our show, each episode is dedicated to a single theme that is centered around characters, identities or storylines that have traditionally been excluded or misrepresented in mainstream culture.
This week, in honor of one of my favorite shows, Dear White People, whose fourth and final season is dropping on Netflix today, we’re dedicating the episode to Black college stories. I’m delighted to have Logan Browning, who stars on Dear White People as Sam, join us later to talk about how this series has represented a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds among its student body. She’ll also share a little bit about her own college journey.
But first, we’ll take a walk — a campus tour, if you will — through Hollywood’s history of Black-centered college movies and TV shows. In researching this subject, I was very much guided by a column written by the late critic Roland Laird for Pop Matters in 2011. I’ll link to his work in the transcript to this episode, which you can find at THR.com, and on my Twitter thread for this episode, which will be @therebeccasun.
To accompany me on the tour and add even more dimension to our discussion about college experiences for Black students, I’m happy to welcome yet another THR colleague to Hollywood Remixed. Evan Nicole Brown just joined The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month as our culture writer. She was most recently a New York Times fellow and has written for Fast Company, Atlas Obscura and Bushwick Daily.
Evan, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s always nice to talk to a colleague, especially a new one and get to have a chance to actually talk face to face.
Evan Nicole Brown: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be discussing this with you.
Sun: So with today’s topic, when we were pre-gaming prior to hitting record, we discussed the option of going linearly through the history of various representations of Black collegiate life, but we decided on instead going topically, and we’ll pull in examples as they go. But first, because I think it’s very important when we talk about media to realize that there’s no such thing as a viewer who is a blank slate, everybody approaches a piece of art with the full context of their experiences, so if you don’t mind, I love to hear about what your college experience was like. You went to Bard, is that right?
Brown: That’s correct. And being a born and raised Angeleno, going to a small liberal arts school on the east coast, in New York’s Hudson Valley was a totally different experience from the urban and very diverse environment I grew up in. So in terms of being a Black student at Bard, there was definitely a cohort of us. We were not at all in the majority. But it became important to find certain affinity groups and to find interest areas that could connect me with other students both beyond my race but also within my own Blackness, because finding those corners of the campus on my own, it became very apparent to me the second I got on campus that that wasn’t going to be immediately available if I didn’t look for it myself.
In terms of social life, I would say that it was very privileged and white for the most part. And I was familiar with that, having gone to Harvard-Westlake high school in Los Angeles, but at the same time, there was definitely a yearning I felt all four years for the house parties with people of color that I grew up going to. And that was really my safe space and my comfort zone. So just finding a way to be myself while also code switching as sort of a survival skill, that really guided my college experience.
Sun: Whenever we’re talking about the subject of the Black collegiate experience, that grouping very specifically has a delineation. There’s the HBCU experience, historically black colleges and universities, and then there’s PWI, which is a term that I learned after HBCU. PWI, for those who don’t know: predominantly white institutions. That’s the kind of school you went to. It’s basically everything that isn’t an HBCU. Like, I went to a PWI — although I was actually trying to think, What’s the closest to a historically Asian college or university? And I could only come up with UC Irvine. [Laughter.]
Brown: I love it. [Laughs.]
Sun: The University of Civics and Integras. That’s an in-joke. Anyway, so that’s a very different experience. There’s been a good number of depictions of HBCU life over the years. A Different World was I think for much of the general public their first exposure to really what that was like for those who didn’t attend HBCUs. That was the late ’80s. I know that predates your life, Evan, but that sitcom was really seminal. I mean, Lena Waithe named her production company, Hillman Grad, after the fictional HBCU, Hillman College, in that. School Daze, Spike Lee’s sophomore feature — pun intended — took place on a fictional HBCU. Spike Lee is a very proud HBCU grad, Morehouse College. And then going through movies like Drumline that depicted the proud legacy of that. Before I go on, when you were looking at colleges — I don’t want to imply that every Black high school student thinks, “Should I go to an HBCU?” but just curious about whether or not that was an option for you?
Brown: It was. I did apply to Howard and I got in; I decided to go to Bard instead. I was going to mention this earlier: I think I could have had equally beautiful experiences at both places in different ways and for different reasons. But I was really attracted to Bard’s literature program, which is what I ended up majoring in. So I always knew that I was choosing my program and the education I was going to get at Bard more than the community. I knew that I was going to lose something and let something go in that way by choosing a school like Bard over an HBCU like Howard. So that’s something I negotiated with myself at age 18 and made that choice that way. But I have several friends who have gone through the HBCU system; my grandfather and my uncle are both Morehouse men. So it was always in my universe and still is, but I just kind of went the other direction.
Sun: Even that decision process, right? I’m not Black, I don’t have a Black family, but being able to see that decision process — “Should I go to an HBCU or should I go to a PWI?” — depicted, I think it was Black-ish that had a storyline when Zoey was graduating from high school and looking at college searches. [Editor’s note: That plot was actually about Zoey’s younger brother Junior.] That’s been kind of great to get to see characters wrestle with, like you said, the pros and cons. There are things that you give up from your college experience, and also maybe — if I’m not being too presumptuous — burdens that you take on in deciding to go to a PWI.
Brown: Absolutely. I know it’s a trade-off that really never ends in life. I feel like we’re constantly making those like selections in environments we show up in and different decisions and workplaces and things like that we have to choose between as well. So I guess in that way, it’s good practice to go through that as a teenager when you’re making that college decision.
Sun: Let’s talk about, then, in PWI, the different experiences that could come into play. Just to give people some examples of shows that depict the experience of black students in PWIs, one of course is Dear White People. That decision is very, very central to the experience of the ensembles both in the film and the television version. I think Zoey from Black-ish ultimately goes to a PWI, because I think [the college setting in] Grown-ish is a multiracial school. This is another film that is a little bit older, but John Singleton’s Higher Learning from 1995 goes into some of the tragic consequences of the racial tensions that can take place. I’m very curious about class and privilege, since you mentioned that. And I think that’s something you can speak with incorporating your personal experience. You alluded to it a little bit, that there’s a perception of what people think when they think of a Black student at a university, and that is not necessarily reflective of the reality. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Brown: Going into college, I was very cognizant of my privilege as an upper middle class Black woman who had gone to a major private high school in Los Angeles. I think that isolated me from some Black students in college, because there was definitely a difference in lived experience and an access to certain experiences and certain rooms and certain types of people in some ways. But at the same time, I saw very clearly how it made white students more comfortable with me, because they felt that there was this sort of immediate common ground just through knowing maybe the name of the high school I had gone to or hearing the way I spoke. There’s just so many different cues that are invisible but that are used very insidiously sort of on accident by people to signal that they feel more comfortable with you than somebody else. And the thing that’s really difficult about that is that the onus isn’t really on the person in that space to explain things away, but it ends up feeling that way because you want to feel at home with your own group of people and you want to have that common ground and you do in many ways, but at the same time, I feel like there were certain ways in which I was comfortable with other students and white students on campus who maybe shared a different experience with me outside of race. So just constantly navigating that.
But I think that from the high school I went to, a place like Bard and to be completely honest, a small liberal arts school like Bard, I think truthfully was seen as a surprise for me to go to. It would have been an expectation for me to go to an Ivy League. So just navigating all of those unspoken things was really interesting, but I definitely struggled with feeling like I wanted to really be a part of the Black community at Bard. And I was to a certain degree, but I think that my class privilege eliminated some of that understanding. So that was something I was constantly trying to approach positively and get better at and remain very conscious of my privilege and to not be sensitive surrounding those types of divisions.
Sun: Again, so we’re speaking to the difference between the stereotype — I went to Duke, another school that’s considered a good school, and there’s just this assumption that the Black students are either on an athletic scholarship or some other sort of scholarship. And although there are all sorts of students and, yes, many students who come from historically excluded populations who are there on scholarship, that’s not necessarily the case. When I was doing research for this episode, I saw that because of what you just spoke of – the disparity between the stereotype and your lived experience – there have been certain characters then that I’m curious whether would especially resonate, one of the earliest being — and again, I recognize the show is before your time — Whitley from A Different World. Even though A Different World is set at an HBCU, she was the O.G. — and I’m borrowing this from a great story in The Undefeated a few years ago — the original “bad and boujee” lady.
She was somebody who came from a generational wealth, light-skinned, which we’ll talk about too. Jasmine Guy, originally kind of painted as the villain. I’m just going to give a history lesson here for those who don’t know or remember: First season of A Different World, not successful. People hated the show. People hated Whitley. She was like a snob, the light-skinned, rich snob at the school. And then it changed. Debbie Allen came on board the show — behind the scenes, the show finally got some Black creators, some people who went to an HBCU. Debbie Allen took the writing staff to visit Spelman and Howard and all these schools to be like, “Look, we’ve got to get this right.” Anyway, the show got a lot better. People ended up loving Whitley and that character, but I’m curious: Growing up, did you have any representations of Black girls who were like you, who were in an environment like you, or did you not?
Brown: That’s a good question. I think the truth really lies somewhere in the gap between those two opposites. And that’s certainly my experience. I feel like I’ve actually been sort of blessed with the best of both worlds and feel very comfortable in “bad and bougie” generational wealth spaces, but also in spaces that are less affluent and more underserved. So in that way, I don’t think I really had representation. And I still think there’s a lack of that representation in terms of somebody who can flow quite easily between both or multiple spaces. But the closest thing that I can think of right now is, especially as an Angeleno, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air definitely spoke to that contrast in terms of Will coming from west Philly and moving into this mansion in Bel Air. Just seeing those characters navigate very preppy spaces and sort of have to apologize for their class privilege in certain ways, and then in other episodes be totally ignorant of how privileged they were, I think that The Fresh Prince did a really good job at showing that.
It’s actually very important in terms of Hollywood depictions of Black life. I’m thinking also of like shows like The Cosby Show — just seeing that depiction, especially at the time, was important, even though it didn’t show all sides of the Black experience. Up until that point, there had been a lot of negative stereotypes that still persist about the crack epidemic in Los Angeles, or certain depictions of low-income communities, hoods and neighborhoods and gang violence. That was a lot of what people were seeing about Black life and about Black schools. So even though shows showing the more bougie, affluent, upper middle class, out of touch Black person, Black woman didn’t do a great job at showing nuance all the time, but I also think that in terms of the timeline of representation, they played a really important role because we needed to see that type of lifestyle to do some work to sort of overcome the negative stereotypes that were dominating Hollywood.
Sun: Let’s talk about like code switching. It’s half a survival mechanism, but I think [there’s] also the beautiful side of it. I kind of like code switching. I like knowing a different language, whether we’re speaking literally or figuratively a different language, a different cultural language.
Brown: To your point about code switching, I’m thinking of the movie Drumline, which I loved growing up. It was huge in my circle of friends, seeing that HBCU experience and Nick Cannon was so major at the time. Seeing all the fun surrounding that experience, to be honest I’ve at times felt a certain jealousy that students at HBCUs don’t have to code switch and get to live a more fully authentic life in that way in class, on campus. Seeing those types of college depictions through the years has really made clear to me that it would have been a beautiful, safe haven to not feel forced to code switch quite as much, but at the same time, everybody’s different. Whether you’re in a Black institution or not, everybody switches how they behave in the classroom versus not. So I guess that in that sense, it’s similar.
Sun: You brought something up in terms of learning about the appeal of HBCUs through media. In your case, you had family who had gone to HBCUs, but for those who don’t, media is one of the most important ways in which you can recruit and promote. I found an old article from The New York Times where there was a university president, Walter Kimbrough, who said that spanning from the time in which The Cosby Show first hit the air in ’84 to the end of A Different World, which was a spinoff of The Cosby Show, in ’93, HBCU enrollment grew by 24.3 percent, which outpaced enrollment at universities in general. But then in the decade after A Different World went off the air, that HBCU growth rate dropped to 9.2 percent. So that’s a drastic drop.
Brown: That’s interesting. I love that point about how those percentages are really guided by the cultural moment, because for instance, I think for my grandparents’ generation who were born in the early part of the 20th century and around the Great Depression, for Black people at that time it was so important in a lot of circles to actually preach assimilation and get your children into institutions that would “legitimize” them, quote-unquote, and give them a better life and allow them to secure more generational wealth. So I think it’s interesting that we went through that time period and then as you say, in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a push for various reasons in society, historically, there was an interest in finding our common ground and really preaching the beauty of brotherhood and sisterhood through historically black colleges and universities, through Greek life, and banding together in that way.
And I can’t say for sure, but I feel like given the racial reckoning, given the all too obvious lack of progress in terms of police brutality and microaggressions and violence that people are still going through, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us turn the corner again on some of those enrollment percentages and statistics. I think that Black people are looking for opportunities like HBCUs again to really just focus on our community and build up our strength amongst each other. Because I think it’s really obvious at this time that that’s where a lot of the power is gonna come from. And it’s not to say that going to a PWI means you’re a sellout or that you’re not aligned with your people, but I think it’s less important now. Whatever social capital is gained from going to a PWI, I feel like that’s becoming less and less important, and retaining culture is more so.
Sun: We saw that tradeoff that you spoke of at the very beginning of our conversation play out in part with what was happening with Nikole Hannah-Jones when her tenureship was questioned by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. If you guys don’t know about this, just Google it, it’s too complex of an issue for me to summarize quickly, but she ultimately decided to take her talents to Howard University. And part that was just in realizing the utter lack of support — administrative support, Board of Trustees support — that she would have gotten at UNC, which is like insane. I mean, if Nikole Hannah-Jones, one of the most esteemed and acclaimed and awarded academics and journalists in the industry, is treated that way, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Brown: Unfortunately it’s a really poignant example of how, no matter what institution has accepted you — a place like The New York Times, the Pulitzer center — with all of those things on your CV, at the end of the day, you’re still a Black woman. And I feel like the university — UNC?
Sun: UNC Chapel Hill. It was so UNC of them! [Laughs.]
Brown: That was a really obvious display of how, no matter whether you go to an HBCU or PWI, or whether you work at a smaller local paper or a major news organization, Blackness is still at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds. And that’s what she was being challenged on at the end of the day. It really wasn’t about her credentials. It was really about her race. And that just goes to show that we still have a ways to go. No matter how you slice it, representation is symbolic in a lot of ways, and it’s not necessarily indicative of true progress.
Sun: That’s such a good point. I think this conversation about DEI, we’re past that first chapter now where we’re just talking about “get a face onscreen” or “get them in the room.” It’s about how you actually think of these people, how you actually are valuing their labor and their contributions, which is a much more subtle thing. So it becomes even harder to really get that right.
I want to wrap on something that you were starting to talk about with the value of HBCUs and how media can really help promote them. You had to make a tradeoff: what your experience was going to be like versus a school with a really, really great program, a very legitimate choice. And I’ve been learning about how a lot of times, HBCUs — I think it doesn’t come to any surprise — are chronically under-resourced. And so as a result, many Black high school students have to face that choice of the experience: Do I take the microaggressions with the quality of this academic offering or the quality of this athletic program? Lately we’ve been seeing, like you said, a commitment to invest, and it’s come from some folks like Chris Paul, who I interviewed at the beginning of the year. He was producing an ESPN+ docuseries about a basketball team at HBCUs. So I’m a big ACC person because I went to college in the ACC. Chris Paul went to Wake Forest, a PWI, but now he’s going back to finish his undergrad degree at an HBCU. And he was saying how one of the reasons why he had to choose Wake Forest was because there are all these talented Black athletic prospects who go on to play for predominantly white institutions, because that’s where the resources are. How can we reverse that? It’s the most ironic talent drain that exists. All of these PWIs’ athletic programs are making so much money off of Black athletic phenoms.
We’ve started to see that reverse a tiny bit. There were some very prominent — sorry, this is devolving into a sports podcast — very prominent Black prospects who declared for Howard and for other HBCU programs. So that’s moving, as well as general philanthropists. Mackenzie Scott, who used to be married to Jeff Bezos, has made significant gifts — I’m sorry, “transformative” is what Howard University called it. Forty million dollars to Howard. That kind of investment really, really matters. And it’s not about saying like that everybody should go to an HBCU, but it’s about choice.
Brown: And historically there were many more HBCUs that have closed down, or enrollment has gotten so low because of the things you speak of. The choices became more and more limited to the point where you mostly hear about the Spelman, the Howard, the Morehouse. So just building up a more robust network of HBCUs and helping students feel like they have more choice, because if you can get financial aid at a PWI and there’s less of that opportunity at an HBCU, that really can make the difference for a lot of people making that choice.
Sun: Absolutely. Well, we always close with two very, very simple questions that I’ve now basically merged into one question because I realized that that’s what the guests want: Thinking along this theme, is there a TV show or a movie that you would say, “Ooh, that depiction needs a do-over; it was problematic.” And/or, is there something that you recommend — again thinking about our theme — a narrative that you think people should check out if they want to see something done right?
Brown: Wow. That’s a great question.
Sun: I can go first if you want to think about it.
Brown: Yes, please.
Sun: It’s not my place to call out whatever was problematic. There’s probably a lot of minor things, like side characters over the year, but I think that the spirit of this theme isn’t so much — like, there are tropes within it, but I think that when you think about Black collegiate narratives, you mostly think about the stories that are centered on that.
I’ll do two that are maybe a little bit easy. One is, for people who haven’t had an opportunity to see Dear White People, I really love the show. Obviously the rest of the episode is dedicated to it so it’s obviously not a hidden gem, but it’s so good at depicting the microcosm, the tribes in college, the varied experiences of people. All of the main characters in the ensemble are Black. They could not be more different from each other in perspective. And it’s just very nuanced. It’s a super fun show to watch. I really, really love it. It does what a great TV show based on a movie does, which is it just expands the universe and gives you more.
On the unscripted side, since I mentioned it, Chris Paul’s docuseries Why Not Us?. It’s on ESPN+. It follows a real basketball team from an HBCU, I think it was North Carolina Central, kind of at a pivotal season because it takes place during the pandemic. Everybody suffered during the pandemic, but an HBCU who has to deal with their seasons being canceled was kind of catastrophic. It was catastrophic for Howard as well. So those are two options.
Brown: For me, Stomp the Yard, which came out in 2007, is about street dancing but also enrolling in a fraternity step group and using a natural dance talent to pursue that more seriously. And the reason I say Stomp the Yard is because not only is it a movie that sticks out in my mind as being very authentic — I feel like it was well done in terms of authenticity; I feel like I absolutely know people like the ones I saw onscreen in that film — it wrestled with a lot of different emotional challenges, socioeconomic challenges. But what I love about it too is that dancing and the rhythm of the drums, even stemming back to the cultural history of African drums in our culture. I think that celebrating dance and movement and the way that was portrayed in that movie actually was really kind of profound, at face value. It was just a fun dance movie, but the ability to see Black joy in the midst of Black struggle was really significant to me.
In terms of a do-over honestly, I don’t know if this is exactly answering your question, but I’m going to throw it out there: I would actually like to see a film like a Legally Blonde, which has become such an iconic film about femininity and feminism and the college experience and sort of “bimboism,” but also being very smart and intellectual and not being properly understood. I would like to see a Black woman in a lead role like Reese Witherspoon was in that movie. I think that actually could be really thematically what Legally Blonde represents. I think if rendered in Black it would be really, really powerful. And I actually can’t think of an example of that type of college movie and a young woman navigating those nuances in terms of being really attractive and sort of resting on that but at the same time, really caring about school and her career. Not many examples come to mind. So I think that a Black version of that type of film would actually be really great to see.
Sun: That’s great. That’s a good pitch, honestly. You’re right. It upends a long-held stereotype and a trope and kind of subverts ideas of what smart people should look like and act like and be about and care about. So yeah, I would like to see that. Well, you heard it here first, guys, if that adaptation ever comes to pass. Evan, this was really fun to talk to you. Thank you so much. I hope you come back again.
Brown: Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you for having me. This was great.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Logan Browning stars on Dear White People as Samantha White, the biracial documentary film student whose campus radio show “Dear White People” is often in the middle of many of the cultural and social incidents that take place at Winchester University, an Ivy League-like predominantly white institution with an active Black student caucus. Logan’s other starring credits include Bratz: The Movie, Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns and VH1’s Hit the Floor.
Logan, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today. I have binged a lot of different shows during the pandemic, and Dear White People was clearly one of the best choices I’ve made. It’s fantastic. Very, very dense. Lots to talk about.
Logan Browning: I’m so glad. I’m glad that that made it on your watchlist. I had a lot of things that maybe weren’t as dense. I watched the — what is it? The Tiger, Carole Baskin —
Sun: Tiger King.
Browning: Tiger King, yeah! Actually, it is kind of dense.
Sun: It’s pretty dense. It gets pretty dark. I actually did not finish Tiger King. My first pandemic watch was Love is Blind. And then I was like, If this pandemic goes much longer, I don’t know if I can do this. [Laughs.]
Browning: Love is Blind is so good. They have a second season. I’m obsessed. I love them so much. I need to know where they’re going. Ugh, such a great show.
Sun: I haven’t watched that reunion, the one year later. I haven’t watched that one yet. I was like, I can’t get sucked back into it. [Laughs.] But either way, in between my Love is Blind viewings, I watched all three released seasons of Dear White People. Very worthwhile for anybody who has not yet had the pleasure. But anyways, since we have you here and since this episode is dedicated to stories about Black college life, I wanted to start by asking you about your own experience, if that’s cool. I believe you spent a year at Vanderbilt before you moved to L.A., is that right?
Browning: I moved to L.A. when I was a kid, actually. I moved to L.A. when I was 14. I was an actor professionally from 14 to about 17, went back to Georgia, came back to L.A., filmed Bratz: The Movie. Then I went to college; that’s when I went to Vanderbilt. I stayed there for a year and then my manager at the time was like, “You should come back because you just did this film and you should build off of it.” So I took a leave of absence, which I didn’t know you could do. I tell a lot of young people who are always like, “I’m going to take a gap year,” I say, “Just go for the first year,” because it’s so much harder to get back into school after you’ve left it, just from an application standpoint. So I took a leave of absence.
Sun: That’s a really good point. I went to a school with a really good basketball program, so we had a lot of athletes who do that. They did one to three years, and then many of them now are finishing up their degrees, because you kind of need to seize that moment while you have it. I’m curious, if you don’t mind, why did you pick Vanderbilt?
Browning: Oh, I come from a family of academics, and my father went to Emory and Earlham and Harvard. He was a dentist. From very young, going to a top 20 school was very important to me and my family. And so for me, I told my dad that it was going to have to be top 20 academics and top 20 party. And top 20 sports. I needed the collegiate experience. I looked at Cornell, I looked at Carnegie Mellon. But Vandy, just from the outside looking in when I first visited, it was a beautiful campus. It seemed to have everything that I wanted.
Sun: It’s such a great school. In the first half of this podcast episode, one of the things we talked about is how — we’ve seen this in some shows but certainly in real life — one big decision that some Black college-bound students face when they’re looking at going to college is whether to go to an HBCU or PWI, a predominantly white institution like the school I went to, like Vandy, like Winchester University. I’m just curious if that’s something that you thought about. Was that anything that was on your radar?
Browning: It’s so fascinating to me because it was on my radar, but I grew up in Atlanta. Atlanta has Spelman and Morehouse, and Atlanta is very Black and the middle school, elementary school, high school I went to were very Black. I mean, they had a mix of everyone, but I never saw a lack of myself around, and so I don’t think that I had this inclination to go to a HBCU. I do think my parents kind of steered me into the direction of, “Okay, HBCUs exist, but also, the world is not all Black and maybe you will have a more realistic entry into the world by going to a school that has whatever the world has.”
However, in hindsight, all of my friends and contemporaries who went to HBCUs got an experience I think that was incredibly valuable because when you are all Black, when you’re all kind of the same thing, you then just get to be yourselves. You get to just focus on being great, and you get to learn more about yourself. You get to explore so many topics that you don’t have available at a regular school or especially a PWI. So I definitely think that not going to an HBCU was an experience I missed. However, I also loved going to Vandy. We had a Black Student Union at Vandy. I found my people there, and we were able to do the same thing on a smaller level.
Sun: I love that you mentioned that, and that’s so true that what you said about sometimes with PWIs or schools that are multiracial, you kind of become identified by whatever your demographic is rather than being an individual. We see that onscreen sometimes with college-set narratives — and I love college stories because they’re like microcosms of the outside world, there’s so many different factions interacting with each other, colliding with each other — but sometimes for white-centered narratives, every other character is put into a clique that’s just categorized by identity. Like, “that’s the Asian table” or “that’s the Black club” and things like that. What I love about Dear White People, one of the things is that even though it’s set at a PWI, from the pilot, from the very premise of the show, you see such a gradient of perspectives. Like, the Black Caucus is separated into factions and people have different approaches. Is that kind of like what you were talking about? What it was like for you at Vandy, or even just in your own life? Do you, like Sam, identify more with the Black Student Union, the BSU’s approaches rather than the COREs or the Black AFS, or like Kelsey’s group, African-American Student Union?
Browning: African-American Student Union! [Laughs.] I loved all these names. Like you said, the really cool thing about having the Black Caucus meetings were that you got to see that Black people are not monolithic but in seeing that you then can deduce that no group is. No group of people, however you want to identify them, all think exactly the same or all want to solve a problem or reach a solution the exact same way, but everyone should have a seat at the table to discuss and have a meeting of the minds. At my school, our Black Student Union was kind of just Black Caucus as a whole. It was very different from the show. We had events and ways to uplift each other, like at most PWIs I believe, at least at ours, we have Black Grad, Black Graduation. We have a separate graduation.
Sun: Oh, that’s cool. I didn’t know that.
Browning: Yeah, it’s just a separate Black graduation to give students an opportunity to really shine and to have a separate ceremony and for your family to really have that moment, because for a lot of Black people, graduating college is still a big deal, because we are people who have not started at the same start point as white people in this country, and a lot of other groups of people can identify with that if you’re an immigrant or if you’re part of a group of people that didn’t start at the same line. So that was kind of what our Black group at Vandy was like, and I think it is similar in other PWIs.
Sun: Netflix put up a four-minute clip recapping the first three seasons of Dear White People — and even though I watched all three seasons of Dear White People, that clip was too much! There was too much to pack in — that’s one of the many, many, many issues that’s explored: the idea of not starting at the same starting point. So if you’re confused by what Logan just said, just watch the first three seasons of Dear White People and that’s one of the things that you’ll be educated on.
When we talk about representation, because there is such a plethora of viewpoints embodied by the ensemble — and Dear White People at this point has become a true ensemble; your character Sam is as much of a focal point as we can say there is a focal point on the show, but there’s such an ensemble of characters. I’m wondering if you or your castmates have had encounters with fans that are not just about being able to see somebody who looks like them onscreen, but have you had experiences with people who are saying, “I get to see somebody who thinks the way I do, or who takes a similar approach to life, or who has dealt with a similar type of identity issue,” whether it’s in school or outside of it. Any engagements or interactions like that?
Browning: That’s such a great question. I feel like maybe there are people out there who I haven’t even connected with who have a lot of those feelings. But I was on a walk the other day, ran into one of my neighbors. She’s in her 40s, she’s a white woman, she’s Jewish. She has two kids, and she watched the show just randomly. And she felt like it was very educational, that she learned from it. But she did say that she saw herself in some of the characters, and I think that was the whole point of Dear White People, because that’s what every other person of every other ethnicity has had to do for so long in Hollywood. If I watch Clueless, sometimes maybe I’m seeing myself in Cher and not Dionne — or maybe that’s a bad example because I did have a Black character to look to. I’ll use this as an example: If I watch Saved by the Bell and there’s one Black woman character at the high school, do I have to see myself in her? Does that mean that is exactly who I am? What I ended up doing was choosing which character I felt I wanted to see myself in, but the issue with that is that I feel that the world wants me to be this way. And it was like that with every film, with every television series – and the other difficult part of that is: If, say, it’s not a Black person, say I’m watching someone who is Asian, is Muslim, is Indian, is dot dot dot, fill in the blank, then my perception of those people in the world are shaped by that particular image, and that’s the only one. The viewer will inevitably put people in a box based on that particular character, because that’s how they showed up. Hopefully Dear White People is an example of how you can flip something on its head and give everybody else an opportunity to see themselves in any character.
Sun: Absolutely. Even when you just look at the core trio of Black women on the show — Sam and Coco and Joelle — and you can extend it further and talk about Brooke and Kelsey, but that dynamic is one of my favorites on the show. Obviously Sam is very close to Joelle, but there’s like a frenemies history with Coco, and these are three very different Black women and they represent not just different philosophies and approaches, but even their backgrounds and their histories are really different.
If you don’t mind speaking to this, Sam is a biracial character, and we see the relationship and particularly the epi — I don’t want to spoil people, but Sam has a great relationship with her father, who is white. I’m just curious what that experience has been like, playing a biracial character. You’ve shared this in interviews before that your parents are both black, but your biological parents, one parent was white. Has playing Sam taught you anything about your identity, or maybe the other way around — your own experience has informed how you have played this character for four seasons?
Browning: You know, it’s funny because I almost thought I couldn’t relate to Sam in that way because I am biologically biracial, but I don’t identify as biracial. I just don’t. That’s something I’m still working on and trying to uncover and make a decision. I think that everyone gets to make that choice in their life, how they want to identify. But being raised in a Black home, a Black household, the images I saw in my home, what we did, the art that we subscribed to, the plays I saw, the music we listened to, the people I was around, it was just all Black all the time. That was the thing I wondered if I would have a difficult time relating to Sam through. I have friends who are biracial and they do identify as biracial. Like if you ask them, or if they’re talking in a conversation, they will say, “Well, as a biracial person,” and I’ve never said that I — or maybe I have, maybe more recently I’ve may have said that, I have no idea, I can’t imagine myself saying it, but I just consider myself Black. I think the thing that Sam has helped me to reckon with is that even though I identify as Black and that’s how I see myself, that the world will see me as different. The world will see me as this light-skinned girl with these light green eyes and be like, “What are you?” The number one question from season one of Dear White People, “What are you?,” which is an awful question. Never ask anyone that. [Laughs.]
Sun: Especially phrased in that way. Good golly. [Laughs.]
Browning: It’s an ongoing process. I think at the end of the day, the thing it’s helped me with is moreso accepting that I am a light-skinned Black woman and the effects of colorism, and that’s separate from being biracial. But yeah, it is complicated. And that’s why I have appreciated being able to play Sam on the show, because I have been able to experience some of those complexities through her that I probably never would have on my own, because I never had to reckon with growing up in a household with parents from two different ethnicities. I never had to deal with that. And I kind of got to live part of that through her, which is kind of strange.
Sun: Last week’s episode of this podcast was about this movie Blue Bayou that just came out, and it’s about a man who’s transracial adopted. He was born in Korea, biological parents are Korean, but he was raised in Louisiana by white people, in the foster system actually. And your experience is different. You are Black, and you were raised by Black parents, but that aspect — you’re right, how the world sees you versus your actual personal upbringing. What that experience is like I think is a very complex thing that I hope we get to see more stories exploring more directly, but thank you for answering that question and entertaining it.
I do have some questions about season four, which drops today as this podcast episode will drop, so I haven’t seen it yet, but thinking back over the three seasons that you guys have filmed, is there an aspect — one of the gazillions of storylines and different issues that you guys have explored — is there one that really sticks with you as particularly resonant? And it can apply specifically to the theme of college experience or beyond it, because again, I think Dear White People really was prescient in discussing a lot of things that the outside world ended up becoming obsessed with.
Browning: The thing that I’ve learned and the thing that I would probably take from the show is compassionate empathy. It’s really learning how to have compassion for others, compassion for yourself. Sam, one of the things I love about her is she is so outspoken. She has no problem saying her truth and she does it with good intention to protect people. And sometimes she’s wrong, and I love that she’s wrong sometimes and she gets to learn from that and evolve. But it’s been interesting, especially coming out of 2020 and how the summer was in 2020 and even around the election and just how divided we all were in this country, really the world, I’ve learned that everyone will be wrong at some point, including ourselves. And if we know that we are going to have someone tell us how we’re wrong and it may not be a comfortable experience, and we would hope that they would do it with the most compassion possible, shouldn’t we also do it to other people? I think that’s the thing that Sam didn’t get in the very beginning of Dear White People. She felt people were wrong and it didn’t matter and she told them exactly how she felt. Now I’m being a bit hard on her, because I do think she came from an emotional place, and I think that it was an honest place, but she was hard on people all the time and it was important and it needed to happen. I think that’s why she was so emotional. Because it was frustrating to literally be biologically part of these two different things that are at war. That means that you are at war inside and you come from the oppressive and the oppressed, and it is soul crushing. In season one, she has the monologue at the end of episode one and I think that is the crux of Sam and the crux of where her pain comes from. And in season four, or as you go through all of the seasons, you see the different people that Sam will become combative with and who will become combative with Sam. And by the end, I think Sam has gotten the opportunity to show what it’s like to be compassionate, even when people come for you.
Sun: Sam has definitely had her run-ins and multiple existential crises throughout the show. I just remember like how relatable it was, I think you started season two basically getting sucked into the whole arguing with trolls rabbit hole, which was a good cautionary tale, because I’ve definitely had that impulse. And then of course meeting up with Tessa Thompson’s character, who was very similar to a real-life personality that we don’t need to name, but yeah, fascinating. Gosh, I love the character Sam Brown. I’m so glad she exists in her fullness, in her journey, in her flaws. Sam White. Oh gosh.
Browning: I love that. You mixed Logan and Sam. [Laughs.] I love it.
Sun: I did. [Laughs.] Inextricably tied, but I hope what you would consider a great legacy, because I think she’s a good legacy. Okay, season four. I just have to ask a few questions because I’m so curious. First of all, anybody who’s seen the trailer realizes that you guys are going full-on musical for this final season. When did your showrunners Justin Simien and Jaclyn Moore tell you guys that that was what you’d be doing?
Browning: My timeline is a bit off as I’m sure everyone will excuse because it was 2020. We were supposed to film in April. So you can imagine… [Laughs.]
Sun: Oh geez.
Browning: You can imagine in March we were like, “Um, what’s happening? Are we getting music or no — ? No music. Uh, okay.” I think that was when we first caught wind. And then we found out that in October, we were going to actually do the show. So late summer, early fall is when we started going in to meet with Jaclyn and Justin. We were already cast, you can’t really get rid of us, which I loved, but we did kind of have to do these mini-auditions, like these mini vocal auditions. [Laughs.]
Sun: To gauge how many numbers to give you.
Browning: But also like, are you going to get rid of me? Like, what happens? No, they would never. I think they loved that process. I think that was very fun for them and fun for us. And they made it work for every single character. They found a way to make every single character or every single actor comfortable and shine. And people who would say they can’t sing are, number one, liars, and number two, they performed the heck out of these numbers. But yeah, they told us to come in and, because the whole season is ’90s R&B, they told us to come sing, but they just said, “Come sing a song from the ’90s.” So I did Bonnie Raitt, “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which is not R&B, but I was feeling it. And Kris Bowers was in the room, you know, Emmy winner Kris Bowers was on the piano, and it was really fun. And then we had our entire table reads over Zoom, which was odd, it being our last season. It doesn’t hit the same, doing table reads over Zoom. And that final one where you’re like, “This is the last table read we’ll ever have, okay, uh, ‘leave meeting’?” It just feels so odd.
Browning: Yes, very.
Sun: Obviously, when you were cast as Sam like five or so years ago now, singing on camera wasn’t part of the job description. How comfortable were you, had you performed musicals in the past or was singing part of your repertoire already?
Browning: I love singing. I grew up doing chorus in middle school and high school, which I was very serious about. I was very much goody two-shoes in middle school chorus especially. I had this incredible teacher, Mike Dorough, he took us on lots of field trips and showed us that music can take you places, that art can take you places. He did it in a literal way, but I really absorbed it in a figurative sense as well. And it’s funny, my little brother — he’s like 13 months younger than me — he joined chorus because he saw that we went on field trips, and then my brother ended up being the one who really was musical and became an opera singer. He plays the piano professionally. He went to school and got his master’s for music, all from school. That’s my nod to why it’s so important to keep art in schools. But yeah, I’ve auditioned for a couple of musicals here in L.A. before and a couple of musical shows that I’ve never actually gone far on, like I always get to the callback and then nothing happens. But that’s why I was very excited about already being cast and being able to do this musical. I trained with this wonderful vocal coach who’s very old-school. I’m just into older-school coaches. I rock with the vibe. I think I’m an older soul.
Sun: That’s great. Well, now you’ve got some fantastic clips to add to your musical reel. My gosh, I can’t wait. I personally hate being spoiled so I’ll ask this next final Dear White People question very carefully, which is, is there something that you can tease that we can look forward to? It can be a number or a treatment of an issue or whatever that you just had a lot of fun doing that you want to tease to us.
Browning: So for my cinephiles and my Dear White People fans who’ve seen season two, or if you take the time to watch the show and you end up seeing season two, there’s an episode, episode eight, we do a bottle episode. I had no idea what a bottle episode was before I did it, which is basically a two-hander. It’s like a play; it’s just two characters stuck in one place for the entire episode. You usually do it for financial restraints, or not. But we also did it for financial restraints. [Laughs.] Anyways, Sam and Gabe have this incredible bottle episode in the radio station. So Sam and Gabe also in season four have an episode; it’s not a full bottle episode because we were going places, but you track them through the episode and they do have big number together. It’s reminiscent of the bottle episode. And that song I will also tease is actually not ’90s R&B, but it is a very popular song, one I loved as a kid. One you won’t know when it starts playing because it’s a different arrangement, but once you know what it is, you’re going to be like, “Oh my God!” [Laughs.]
Sun: This is my favorite game. I’ll just ask one. I’ll just ask one. Is the original version of the song a duet?
Browning: Boy group.
Sun: Oh, it’s my favorite game! Okay. I’m not even going to attempt to tease more because I don’t want to get spoiled. That’s amazing. I love the dynamic between Sam and Gabe. Can I say that I ship them? I mean, I do ship them, but again, I don’t know what will happen with them in season four.
Browning: Oh, that’s the exciting part.
Sun: Don’t tell me anything more.
Browning: I’m not going to tell you, but the exciting part about season four is we’re in senior year, but we’re also 15 years into the future. So you get to see where all the characters end up. So you get to find out about Sam and Gabe.
Sun: Tantalizing. Okay, for my own good, say no more. I will segue to our final two questions that we give to every guest. Now I give them to you guys both at once because I realize some people just don’t even want to answer the first one and go straight to the second. So, two-part question: First is the Hollywood Remixed, which is, is there a past TV show or a past character or a past movie that, given this week’s theme — which is Black college characters or Black college stories — that you would order a do-over for? Usually that means there was something in hindsight that was problematic that you would revise.
Some people have trouble with that one, which is why I go ahead and give you the second one, which is the Hidden Gem. Is there a story, character, whatever that you would recommend like, “I really loved this growing up,” or “this character meant a lot to me” or “I loved this TV show,” that is, again, a Black college character or a Black college-set narrative?
Browning: You’re right, the first question is hard, because you’ve first got to go through the Rolodex of all the Black collegiate shows, and then you’ve got to go through the Rolodex of the characters, and then you’ve got to decide. … It’s a good question I’m going to really sip my tea over and think about, because I’m sure it’s affected my upbringing. Maybe something will come to me, but if not, I’ll move to your second question. I’m cheating because I think it’s actually high school, but it’s musical, and it’s Black and I feel it’s appropriate. And it’s Sister Act 2. I love Sister Act 2 so much because it calls back what I said earlier about the importance of art and music in schools and that it can take you places. If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you’ve got to wake up and make a difference. I love Sister Act 2 so much; I’ll watch it anytime it’s on. I think they did that film well. I think it showed how overlooked certain groups of people in the world can be. And that if you just give them an opportunity, and if you give them art, they not only will go places, but they’ll make the places you go so much more brilliant. They’ll just shine all over the world. Oh my gosh, I’m getting a little existential.
Sun: That one, that was legit. Look, anything that is much of the world’s first introduction to Lauryn Hill is going to be a classic. Especially maybe for younger people who didn’t grow up with that movie, that’s a good recommendation.
Browning: It’s a good movie.
Sun: It’s such a good movie. And it ties very nicely into the musical theme of Dear White People season four. So, two birds.
Browning: It does! And it’s the right era. It’s the right genre. And actually when you watch season four of Dear White People, there’s a scene that I think is kind of a call back to Sister Act 2, just the way that it’s all set up. So, yeah. I won’t continue to spoil things.
Sun: Oh God. Well, I hope people listen to this podcast episode, but if you choose to spend your time binge-watching all of season four of Dear White People, which drops today. I can’t blame you. That’s probably what I’ll be doing — no, I’m not going to binge it. I’m going to parcel it out since it’s the last bit of Dear White People that we get. So I’m going to savor it very slowly.
Browning: I think bingeing it in the beginning is okay, because it’s been a while since you’ve been away from these characters. I mean, I love the show, but I do think that when you come back to it, you’ve kind of got to sit with the episodes. You’ve got to get into the rhythm. It’s like an album. It’s like how people used to play vinyl. You would just play the whole thing. You wouldn’t stop and go, “Okay, now that I listened to the first two songs, I’m going to go do my laundry.” You would listen to the whole thing. So I would say, get on a roll with Dear White People.
Sun: Your musical analogies are so on point. Comparing it to vinyl? Okay yes, I see what you’re saying. That’s a good point that absolves me of the guilt of bingeing it, if that’s what I end up doing. But also, yes, because it is hard to keep track of everything. I haven’t skipped a single episode of Dear White People and I was preparing for this and I completely forgot entire chunks of it because it has been a while, and because there was so much that you guys go through.
Well, we can’t wait. Thank you so much for the gift of this show and for your performance. It’s been such an amazing world to be immersed in. I really loved it. I appreciate it. And I appreciate your time for coming on here today, Logan.
Browning: Thank you so much, Rebecca. Thank you for saying all of those really kind things about the show. I’ve felt the same way about being on it, so I’m happy. Happy we get to share it with the world.
Transition music: A short segment from the intro theme.
Sun: Thanks again to Logan Browning and Evan Nicole Brown for joining us today to reminisce about their college days and talk about the relevance of Black college narratives to so many issues and subjects that we collectively grapple with in off-campus life. The fourth, final and all-musical season of Dear White People is available on Netflix right now. And if you’re like me and can’t get enough Dear White People dish, you’re in luck, because our sibling podcast TV’s Top 5, hosted by my brilliant colleagues Dan Fienberg and Lesley Goldberg, has showrunners Justin Simien and Jaclyn Moore on their show this Friday. Please stay tuned next week when we talk Hollywood in Hawai’i with Doogie Kamealoha showrunner Kourtney Kang and please subscribe to Hollywood Remixed on the podcast platform of your choice so that you don’t miss it. Until then, aloha!
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