The Women Of ‘Dear White People’ Set The Record Straight On The Series’ True Purpose
Everyone loves a good Netflix flick. By now, Orange is the New Black is a certified fan favorite. Michaela Coel’s hilariously awkward Chewing Gum will give you plenty of potentially inappropriate dinner conversation. Dave Chappelle’s two new comedy specials smashed viewership records left and right. However, the coming of the new series Dear White People, ruffled a whole lot of digital feathers.
The Netflix-housed continuation of the 2014 film of the same name is set to hit the streaming service on April 28, but before a proper trailer could even come out, trolls were up in arms at the date announcement video. “To be a part of a movie or show like Dear White People, you have to be about the cause,” says Ashley Blaine Featherson, who reprises the role of Joelle Brooks. “You have to be someone who’s able to invite controversy. You have to be someone who doesn’t easily back down, who isn’t easily scared.”
Featherson—in addition to Antoinette Robertson, who replaced Teyonah Parris as Coco Conners, and Logan Browning, who took over Tessa Thompson’s lead role as Samantha White—isn’t moved by any of the ill chatter. Instead the three of them see director Justin Simien’s brainchild as a teaching opportunity for those who swear the show is all about black people finger-wagging at white people. “Watch the first episode. In the first seven minutes, anything you thought was going to be anti-white, is knocked down,” Browning says. “Then you’ll learn to love it and see that everyone’s voice is represented in the show, even those people who say they want to boycott the show.”
Here, we speak with the leading ladies of the new series as they hip us to what the DWP cast and crew were really thinking when the backlash hit the fan, why it’s so misunderstood and how their respective college experiences influenced their show experience.
Ashley Blaine Featherson
Ashley Blaine Featherson was meant for a role like this. Joelle Brooks, her resprised character in Netflix series continuation of Dear White People, is not one to f**k with. Depicted in her waist-length Poetic Justice braids and occasional dashikis, she’s razor-sharp, ambitious, outspoken and overtly proud of her African-American roots. In real life, Featherson, a theater triple-threat—the former musical theater major acts, sings and dances—and graduate of Howard University’s Fine Arts department, is just as laser focused on her career and the stories she can tell with it. The Maryland native started her career at 14, studying at DC’s Studio Theater under the tutelage of the late costume designer Reggie Ray, who was a major inspiration for her heading to Howard. In college, she was far from the sheltered “theater kid” archtype, instead actively involved in Howard University Gospel Choir, Campus Pals, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and a host of fine arts productions.
To her television, film and music can be educational tools to wake people up who are too lazy to shake their ignorance and trollery. “At the end of the day, nobody wants to be called a n***er,” Featherson says of the angry commenters threatening to boycott Netflix because of the series. “Nobody wants to be called any of those expletives and things like that. However, we know why they’re saying it, and that’s why we created the show.” According to her, April 28 signals the beginning of a very important national conversation about respecting the differentness of our cultures and figuring out how we navigate our lives and relationships in these United States. Here, she gives us a glimpse of what to look forward to once it airs. —Stacy-Ann Ellis
On her journey to Dear White People:
Ashley Blaine Featherson: It was 2012 and I was in a space where I was feeling staggered. I was pretty frustrated and the doors that I felt should’ve been opening for me, that I was really working hard for, just I felt like weren’t opening. And I wasn’t seeing a lot of women on screen who looked like me or who I felt like I could relate to. I said to myself, well I’m going to do it myself. I had this idea of two friends and I met up with Lena Waithe, who at the time we didn’t know each other as well. That same day she went home and made a spec clipboard [for “Hello Cupid”]. I had already had a relationship with Black&SexyTV and approached them with it. They loved it and then we made the show. By the end of 2012, kinda top of 2013, “Hello Cupid” was in full swing. Then Dear White People came. We shot Dear White People in August of 2013. I auditioned for the part and at that time, Justin and Lena [and I] were already a part of each others’ tribe and circle of friends. I hopped on a plane and got to Minneapolis and we shot the movie for a month and a half.
On becoming Joelle Brooks:
Joelle is witty, fun, always down for the cause, but what I love most about her is she’s a really good friend. Being a friend is something I pride myself on as Ashley, being a good friend, maintaining really good friendships and cultivating sisterhood, and I think that’s one of the major things that Joelle and I have in common. Also, Joelle makes things happen. She’s always down and she’s motivated. Part of [her storyline] is what all of the characters are going through just in different ways, but she’s trying to find her voice. She’s so smart and strong-willed and knows what she wants, but I think throughout the season she’s trying to figure out how to really articulate that. She has a best friend, Samantha, who is so outspoken and is so bold and big. She has this whole radio show blast across the campus talking about controversial issues, and I think that Joelle has a lot of that in her too, but hasn’t yet found her outlet for it. It’s a little bit of her trying to figure out how to come out from under Samantha’s shadow a little bit. Also, Joelle is a lover. She is looking for someone who’s her match and that can really add value to her life.
On the backlash of the original movie and the Netflix series announcement:
We loved it then and we love it now. We don’t care. No one’s upset and nobody’s hurt. To be a part of a movie or show like Dear White People, you have to be about the cause. You have to be someone who’s able to invite controversy. You have to be someone who doesn’t easily back down, who isn’t easily scared. Justin did a good job at creating a producing team, writers and actors who are all down for whatever. We’re excited to be a part of something that matters and that people are talking about, because people need to talk about it. After April 28, it’s going to change some more minds. We put out our concept trailer and we got six million views in four days and a trillion dislikes or something crazy, the most in YouTube history. We’re all sending texts and emails around like, Look guys! This is great! How exciting! At the end of the day, nobody wants to be called a n***er. Nobody wants to be called any of those expletives and things like that, however, we know why they’re saying it, and that’s why we created the show. So it’s more so we’re just excited for the show to come out so it can shut those people up. And not only shut them up, but educate them.
On common misconceptions of the DWP series:
The thing that’s really interesting is that whatever their assumption is, it’s nine times out of 10 wrong, so it makes us laugh. The things that people think the show is about, we’re like, literally the show isn’t anything about that. How could you just make that up in your mind that you think the show is about black people telling white people why they’re racist for 30 minutes? That’s not what we’re doing. That’s ridiculous; who would make a show like that? I think the biggest [misconception] is they just think it’s black people… And one, they think that it’s all black people on the show, and it’s not. It’s diverse. It’s majority black people [but] two of our major leads are white. We have an Asian lead. It’s more diverse than people think it is. Just because we’re in the front, then all of a sudden that makes it a black show? And even if it were a black show, what’s wrong with that? That bothers me. I think that people think it’s going to be really inappropriate and bashing. It’s not that at all. Also, people think that it’s just about Samantha and her friends telling white people what they shouldn’t do all day. What’s really cool about the show, and it was like this in the movie too, but it’s about our lives. We’re college students. Take A Different World. They were dealing with issues but they were also just people in college. Sometimes they were in love. Sometimes they were in confrontation. Sometimes they were going somewhere, they were in class. We’re in college. I think people think it’s very singularly focused on, they’re going to be talking about white people and the bad things they do all day. It’s not. The show is really about relationships.
On what could (or should) happen once DWP airs:
I think that anyone that has a heart or understands the history of America and where we are now in particular, that their minds and their hearts will change, and they will be awakened to their ignorance. That’s the thing, ignorance is bliss. They just don’t know. All those negative comments usually on YouTube, there’s some people who don’t know and it’s really just because they don’t care to know. They haven’t sought the knowledge. They haven’t tried to connect with people who aren’t of the same nationality or creed as they are. I think you can watch just one episode of the show and have a greater empathy and understanding for what it’s like to be diverse in America, and how it’s really, really hard and how we really need to come together, rather than continuing to separate. The interesting thing though, I think a lot of people will watch. A lot of those naysayers on YouTube and people that say the terrible comments and the trolls will watch it. They’ll feel change, but they’ll never say it. They’ll either suppress it and they’ll keep trying to go on the way that they were, or it’ll just take a little bit more time. We have this first season, hopefully we’ll have many more seasons to explore stories and narratives, to continue to pull people onboard and open their eyes on what’s going on in America and what it’s like to be diverse.
Antoinette Robertson didn’t always have plans to be on television. With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, the Haves and the Have Nots star thought she would be spending her time in lab—that is before she collided with destiny during an elective in acting her senior year at Stony Brook University. “Anybody out there who feels motivated to pursue anything in the arts or anything at all, I want to encourage them to bet on themselves and take the chance,” the Bronx native tells VIBE. “My life would be completely different right now had I not taken a moment and said I owe this to myself to explore it if anything else.” Now stepping into the role of Colandrea “Coco” Conners on Netflix’s Dear White People, Robertson is more than ready for her close-up. —Shanice Davis
On making Coco her own after Teyonah Parris:
Antoinette Robertson: We stayed true to who Coco was from her thought process to her motivations, but I just need to be able to put my own flair on things, so I never looked to replicate anything that already exists. There’s no fun in that for me, personally. I kind of looked at it as a challenge. Being that I’m a tomboy, playing Coco for me was so much fun because I grew up around a lot of girly girls that won’t leave the house without lipstick and earrings. I’m not that girl, but to be that girl who is also highly intelligent and super motivated and has the trajectory of her life already lined out every single step of the way, I can identify with that to a degree because deciding to go into the field of chemistry isn’t something that I took lightly. Of course I had a plan for my life, but that part of me that gravitated to acting felt the need for more freedom and control. Not in a contrived way, [but] more in a “control of my destiny” way. That part of me found it a little bit more difficult to be a perfect girl so to speak, but it’s very beautiful to be able to see the cracks in Coco’s veneer and how the veil gets lifted.
On her character’s evolution:
I feel as if Coco’s arc is literally a roller coaster…In her mind, success looks one particular way and because of that, she’s trying to fit into a mold that society has created on a whole for some black women where you’re of the belief system that if you go to work with your hair natural, it’s not professional. That Eurocentric ideal of beauty that, unfortunately, we were sold as little girls. [Coco’s] thought process of how success looks comes from that mindset. My hair needs to be laid to a T. I need to be in designer this and that because public perception is very important. Sometimes when people come from an impoverished area as she did, [it’s a matter of] making sure the world, specifically predominately white environments, has the understanding that they can’t put you in a stereotypical box. The title that we all fear most is “Angry Black Women,” even when we assert ourselves. Sometimes we try not to assert ourselves as much so we don’t fall into that category because of the disgusting labels society has a tendency to put on black women. I believe the trajectory of her arc works in a way that you see her evolving and understanding that she’s more than she’s adorned with. She’s more than the labels she wears. She’s more than the weave that she has. She’s more than the makeup. To see her embrace the fact that “I can do this, but this doesn’t make me who I am” is definitely going to be the most exciting part I want to see.
On Coco and Sam’s contentious relationship:
I definitely think they can both learn and grow from each other. Ultimately, at some point in time, we start to go into the back-story as to why Sam and Coco don’t get along and once that’s revealed, you’ll gain an understanding as to why they’ve made it their life mission to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. Deliberately so. These two women have a lot in common, unbeknownst to them, but it’s also similar to how society has a way of putting light-skinned girls versus dark-skinned girls, natural versus weaves or relaxers. There are always going to be divisive tactics that are used to create separation among us. What they soon realize is that they truly have a lot more in common. Their relationship is going to evolve in several different ways, but to see the origin of their relationship is what’s going to be most surprising I want to say.
On what to expect from the Dear White People series:
I’m excited for people to see how Dear White People explores social injustices of every kind. They explore those that feel marginalized, [being] “a black face in a white place” and how the stereotypes that have a tendency to mislabel African-American people can lead to dangerous situations where someone’s life can be put in jeopardy. It also explores the black male experience in terms of how presentation might affect the way that you’re seen in society or how society’s skewed idea of who you may be can also lead to harmful outcomes. I’m excited for people to laugh at really awkward, uncomfortable situations but then 10 seconds later, you might identify with that experience no matter what color, race, creed or sexuality you are. It might cause people to probe and question their interactions with their friends that are of color and their friends who are not of color. There are so many beautiful moments where these characters get to evolve and interact with each other, and they figure out who they are in comparison to who society wants them to be and how they relate to each other, so it’s definitely a journey worth taking.
On the “Netflix boycott” following DWP’s date announcement:
To be honest, I don’t believe that there was a “Netflix boycott.” When people paid attention to the Netflix viewership or membership, it didn’t decline at all. It increased, so let’s just say people throw words out there to try and stir up stuff to get other people to feel a certain way. It’s an announcement of a girl of mixed race saying, “Hey, don’t do blackface because that’s disrespectful,” and the world goes nuts. And at first, I delighted in it. It made me laugh. I thought, “Oh my goodness, if this is what y’all are mad about, when you see this show it is going to be amazing.” And then people started finding me [online] and sending a lot of negativity in my direction, and it saddened me. People are going to be negative, and people are going to be racist. That is expected of the world, but there’s that little part of me that was in the same way disappointed when our now 45th president [Donald Trump] was elected. There’s a little part of you that was sold an American Dream of freedom and the belief system that we’re equal and can all achieve what we want to achieve through hard work. For the most part, our country doesn’t completely stand for racism. You feel like they elect a black man and we’re moving forward, and then that happens. I felt the pang of that a little bit, but I can handle it. You can throw stones at me all you want to, I am so in love with this project. I believe it’s so needed in this day and age.
On her work as an actress in the era of Donald Trump:
Our art needs to be a function of our activism. I remember hearing somebody say that, and I thought it was the perfect quote: If we’re not telling these stories to inform, educate and enlighten people and to tell sometimes the difficult truths in the world then how exactly are we expecting a society to grow and tolerate one another more and to be more compassionate? I’m producing my own work now and gravitating to work that depicts all different experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to do stuff for fun too, but the thought process behind it is if we have a platform, we should be using it. Little black girls and little black boys should be seeing role models on their television, people they would want to emulate [and] people that are having the struggles that they’re having. They should be able to see that and identify with it and understand that they’re not alone.
On embracing life as an artist:
Anybody out there who feels motivated to pursue anything in the arts or anything at all, I want to encourage them to bet on themselves and take the chance. My life would be completely different right now had I not taken a moment and said I owe this to myself to explore it if anything else. You never know. It’s never too late to change your mind or to change your life or present circumstances. I feel like there’s nothing that you can’t attain without hard work and discipline. I kind of feel like I’m living my dream right now, which is crazy to hear myself say, because I stepped out on faith and I had a belief that what was placed in me was what I was meant to do in this world, and I just so happen to be right, and I’m so grateful for that.
This may be Logan Browning’s first time at the head of the call sheet as the leading lady in Netflix’s series, Dear White People, but it’s a role that she carries with much maturity, pride, and a strong sense of self. Those attributes will undoubtedly come in handy, considering the controversy surrounding the streaming service’s most vexed original series yet.
Likewise, the Atlanta-bred actress isn’t a stranger to complicated and often misunderstood characters. VH1’s series Hit the Floor introduced audiences to Jelena Howard, a conniving pro dancer who had a soft interior under her hard layers. Similarly, Browning carries on her strong attitude and knack for butting heads with acquaintances as Samantha White in the original show, but that’s only a sliver of the emotions she is bringing to the small screen.
Logan had some aid from her early years attending college at Vanderbilt University and reading various scholastics in preparation for her role, but for the most part, it’s simply her honing her craft. Here, she addresses the haters and explains what to look forward to when Dear White People finally premieres. —Jessica McKinney
On taking her role as Samantha White:
Actors always want to expand their muscle, and so to have the opportunity to play a character different than what I’ve already done, was so intriguing. But when this first landed in my inbox, I was confused because the movie had already been out. Then I kept scrolling and saw, it’s a series for Netflix. Immediately, I wanted it because when I watched the film, I could see Logan in Sam. So to have the opportunity to audition to play a character I already related to, I was so game for. And then in the audition, there was this powerful, dangerous, specific and correct monologue in the audition that was just special to me. I really wanted to be apart of this, because I felt like I had so much to give, yet I had so much to learn from this character. Not going to an HBCU or not choosing African American studies as a major at school, I pretty much didn’t have the privilege of learning about a lot of Civil Rights authors and activists. So it gave me an opportunity to go back to school and relearn all of these great people who in public school and even private school, people weren’t necessarily teaching already.
[I relate to] her being such a strong leader and people looking to her for that, but not having all the answers and at the same times being this lost sheep. She’s a strong lion but a lost sheep. She’s trying to find the balance of who she is, while she’s also putting on this show for everyone else. It’s a really cool position to be in, where you have to put on your costume, put on the make up, put on the show for everyone else, but you’re still discovering it all for yourself. I really related to that, and her passion for activism.
On using her past college experience in real life on camera:
At the very least, I understood the setting. I understood what it looked like to be one of the few black faces in a mostly white place. And the ways in which African-American students convene with each other because when you’re the less than, you tend to hoard and band together and support and promote each other. That was a long time ago, but I remembered that idea very clearly. Even awkward moments between myself and non-black or non-ethnic students that I didn’t know how to handle. I’m sure if I look back, I could see that was probably the worst way to handle [that situation]. Even the people involved with Dear White People, I learned this actually interesting approach to how to explain your blackness. There’s this really interesting flare to doing it where I’ve learned it’s almost like questioning the person back. It really opened my eyes to things I didn’t realize I was not helping with. I wasn’t making the situation worse necessarily, but I wasn’t making it better.
On explaining her blackness:
I had this conversation with one of my girlfriends from school, and she’s in the corporate world. She was telling me a story about one of her co-workers who questioned her about her hair. And my response was well, all of us, us and them, we’re all raised in society based on European beauty and white supremacy. We’ve all learned these ways growing up. We, separate from them, have also learned about our blackness. So my response was each individual does not have to explain their blackness, but it does help for people to understand if you’re willing to in a non-derogatory towards yourself way, help some one else understand. They haven’t had to subscribe to our culture and they’ve been able to survive without doing that. That’s one of the big debates where when you’re the only black face in a multi-white place. Are you that advocate? Do you have to be or can you just be yourself? Can I just be Logan, or do I need to be Logan the black girl?
On what she learned about herself from being in the series:
The series is not just about your blackness. The series is about these young people in college figuring out who they are in relation to who the world wants them to be and who the world has made them to be already. In that vein, I realized even more how much I love to learn. I actually didn’t finish at [Vanderbilt]. I started at Vanderbilt, but I came back to L.A. to pursue acting, and I bounced from school to school getting credit from different universities. Then I got into this momentum where I was working consistently, and I think I forgot how much I love learning. There are endless opportunities to learn and we have so many resources in 2017 that are a lot of times free and that people in other countries take advantage of that we don’t as Americans.
On preparing for the role:
For this, my character has a radio personality, so I met up with my friend who has a spot on Kiss.FM. He took me to a radio station and I watched someone else DJ. They took me into another room and taught me how to work the boards and add in my own music. I even practiced my monologue that I had. I [also] read a lot. I always like to refer to the creator, so I would watch interviews of Justin Simien because his voice is the voice of the show. I wanted to understand him. The more I could understand him and his voice, the more I would understand my character’s voice. I would watch his interviews, and if he made a reference to a book or interview, I would then go get that book. For instance, once he made a reference to the book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? So I went and read that book. If I saw him reference a specific influence, it would be silly of me to not look that reference up because clearly he did something right and that reference could aid me in my journey.
On controversy brewing after the teaser was released:
If anything, [the controversy] made me that much more proud to be apart of it. It showed me that this show is necessary. Think about how many titles there are in the world. If you’re really going to judge art based on a title, I almost don’t even care about your opinion. That sounds silly as hell to me. And like Justin Simien said, first of all, we haven’t even released a trailer. What is on the web, is a 30-second date announcement. It’s hardly a teaser. It’s simply a young woman speaking very politely asking for her race not to be mocked. How that’s anti-white, I don’t know. Maybe someone can explain it to me because that sounds barbaric and insane. It doesn’t make any sense.
After [the backlash] happened, my first reaction was to go back and read the first script over because I wanted to read what everyone was going to be hit with right after all of this nonsense. And I was so pleasantly moved, especially after watching it all. After the first two episodes, it makes [protesters] sound really crazy because no one would watch those episodes and say that show was anti-white. It’s funny, light, poignant and specific. You fall in love with of all these characters. They’re so fun and unique.
On what she would say to the trolls:
They’re already cancelling their subscriptions right? [Laughs.] And I say that to say, I can’t really speak to them because they weren’t open. Who I want to speak to are the people who are strangely curious, who aren’t already sold on the idea. They’re not against the idea, but maybe they’re not sold on it either. I would say watch the first episode. It’s 30 minutes. In the first seven minutes, anything you thought was going to be anti-white, is knocked down. Then you’ll learn to love it and see that everyone’s voice is represented in the show, even those people who say they want to boycott the show. That’s actually in the show. So they don’t have to feel like they’re being beaten down with a bat with this idea. They’re actually represented, which is the funny part.
On what she’s excited for viewers to see:
What I love about Netflix shows is how unique each one is. We all got into Stranger Things because it was set in that specific time that people can remember. I love Black Mirror because every episode is different. What I love about Dear White People, is each episode is headlined by a different character. It’s not your usual 30-minute show where you’re going to get sick of seeing Sam or Troy. You’re going to love these characters, and you’re going to be able to miss them. Aside from that, it’s a non-linear show, so there’s a lot of flashbacks. There’s a lot of re-telling of the same event from a different perspective and different camera lens, or extending parts of events. It’s a smart show and you as a viewer will appreciate that.
On working with the DWP cast:
It was similar to being freshmen in college. Think of the cast from the movie as having done their freshman year in the movie. They’re sophomores now, [and] some of use were the freshman coming in. It’s that kind of energy where you’re trying to impress and be cool. By the end of it, you’re all in the same boat again. You were accepted. We’re going to be buds for life. We have a group chat where we send hilarious memes and GIFS. But for me personally, it was important to be the encourager. This was my first time being number one on the call sheet, and I took that role very seriously, in terms of being a leader and the encourager. I wanted to make sure everyone felt supported, and I wanted to make sure everyone knew that I was genuinely their number one fan.
On whether the series has the power to unite people:
It can only help. It’s conversation and knowledge. Once you gain knowledge, you have it. I had a friend who posted on her Facebook asking [a question], and she prefaced it like please don’t attack me or each other. She asked her African-American friends a question: if I see a meme with the n-word in it, and I think it’s funny, am I allowed to post it or not? And literally if everyone could just feel comfortable enough to ask each other and have the conversation and not assume one thing or the other, I feel like that’s where it needs to go. Some people may be like hell no, that’s not okay. But the fact of everyone being comfortable enough to talk about these things and say, ‘hey look, it’s cool you had a laugh at it, but you can’t post that because I hear you saying and that word. Even though I say it with my friends, coming from you, it has a different meaning. I know it seems unfair, but a lot of things are for you. Maybe this one isn’t for you. Maybe this one thing is for me.’ And if you can understand that, maybe we can move forward. You can’t go wrong with conversation. If you’re mature about something, I don’t see there being a negative end to it.
On the takeaways from DWP:
Aside from all the race [discussion], it’s a show about these college students figuring their sh** out. At the root of it, that’s what it is. I really feel like anyone can enjoy it. The racial part of it is very important, but that to the side, it’s just a coming of age series. Simple as that.