As Emmy nominations approach, Vanity Fairs HWD team is once again diving deep into how some of this seasons greatest scenes and characters came together. You can read more of these close looks here.
THE SCENE: Sam White vs. Sam White, Dear White People
When Dear White Peoples activist heroine Sam White approaches arch conservative pundit Rikki Carter in the hopes of destroying her career, it seems inevitable that something will go wrong. The eerie lilt of Tchaikovskys “Arabian Dance” from The Nutcracker suite plays in the background as Sam slinks backstage, where Carter is preparing for a controversial campus appearance. The twist? Her nemesis is played by Tessa Thompson, who played Sam White in the original film on which Dear White People is based.
For two seasons now, actress Logan Browning has beautifully inhabited a character Thompson first brought to life in 2014, when Justin Simien premiered the first iteration of Dear White People. Netflix adapted the film into a TV series last year. In both, Sam White is a bi-racial student at a predominantly white Ivy League university who runs her own college-radio show. Thompsons new character, Rikki, is a source of particular consternation for TV Sam this season. Their backstage confrontation is Sams one chance to tell Carter all the things shes practiced for years; in her most optimistic imagination of this scenario, Sam will single-handedly destroy Rikki with her words. Sadly for her, that is not what happens.
Instead, viewers watch as Sam falls apart, trying over and over to humiliate an unshakable opponent who, instead, offers Sam a disconcerting glimpse at her own potential future. The scene chips away at the shows once-impenetrable-seeming protagonist, proving shes more vulnerable and fallible—and, therefore, more nuanced—than she seemed in the seriess debut. As Rikki coolly tells Sam, “The only difference between you and me is time.” That line performs double duty, shaking Sam to her core, while winking to the audience about the meta-trick the scene is pulling off.
Simien knew that the face-off would make a great on-screen moment—not just because of the effect it would have on Sam, but also due to the opportunity it would give to explore other thorny issues. “Immediately, my brain went to, Well, lets just do the story line that we keep hinting at,” he said in a recent interview. “Which is, What is the danger of what Sam could become? Can you get lost in your own activist rhetoric? I think that you can. And how do you both fight against oppression, but not get so sucked into that fight that all you are is the fight?”
How It Came Together
Dear White Peoples second season zeroes in on the way our digital lives interact with our physical ones, even more carefully than its debut season did. Over the course of 10 episodes, personas become unmasked, and sometimes—in cases like Sams revelation about Rikki—whats underneath is more complicated, if not any less horrifying, than we might have thought.
It was important to Simien that Rikki not be a complete straw woman; he wanted her to be a figure whose far-right ideas at least seemed to make a whiff of sense. As Rikki began to take shape, Simien imagined her as someone who lost track somewhere along the way, and started blurring the lines between where her persona ended and her actual beliefs began—an interesting complement to Sam, who is still figuring out the distinctions between her radio personality and her real one.
“I wanted to get into twisting the screw and complicating it, and I was really fascinated by not only how, frankly, working-class and poor, white people have kind of been bamboozled to take up this racist bullshit that really only helps rich, white people,” Simien said. “But then I was even more interested in how people of color and other minorities were being also swept up in it—like women on Fox News advocating against their own rights, and black people advocating against Black Lives Matter.”
Simien also found inspiration in Vertigo—as he said, “Im always looking for ways to do the things that great cinema has always done, but in a black context”—and spiritual writer Eckhart Tolles A New Earth, which describes a part of us called the “pain-body”—a culmination of all our trauma that, as Simien describes it, begins to react and speak for us. Its intentionally unclear whether Rikki actually believes the things she says—or how aware she is of whats truly motivating her. “But I think what is chilling about the scene,” he said, “is how much of it she is aware of, and sort of does it anyway.”
But it may also be more simple than all that. Simien said the scene is just what came out when he learned that Thompson would be available for a guest appearance on the series. “I just wrote the scene that I wanted to see between the two of them,” Simien said. “It just so happened that it worked within the narrative we were creating, and Tessas availability and all that stuff.”
Browning was floored by the entire experience. “Seeing her in this role that was so far opposite from the role I was playing, which she originated, was brilliant to watch,” she said in a separate interview, “because it just showed her depth as an actress and her range, and her loyalty to come back.”
The shoot itself was nearly as intense as Sam and Rikkis showdown. The scene was filmed at the very end of the day, late at night, and there was not a lot of time to get it done. Browning prepared by running her lines with Thompson, chatting and getting comfortable with her on-screen nemesis. “For me, it was such a full-circle moment to just be having this conversation with this actress whos worked so hard and is now literally a movie star, and feel Im literally filling her shoes and getting to perform with her,” Browning said. “Justin knows how Tessa likes to work, and Justin knows how I like to work, and somehow it all went seamlessly.” Also helpful: a stash of Kit Kats Browning had hidden in a nearby stairwell, which she would nosh on between takes. (That night, Browning said, she was running on pizza, tea, and candy. What better diet for someone playing a college student?)
The juxtaposition between Sams hopes and what actually happens is powerful. Instead of unleashing a torrent of practiced talking points, our heroine is forced to listen to Rikkis own script. As Browning pointed out, Rikkis comments get under Sams skin in a way that her peers never could. You can see how rattled the character is by the time she leaves the room, by watching as she fiddles with her camera.
“I remember being really anal about what to do with the camera,” Browning said. “I was like, So, Justin, shes getting it ready? Is the lens on or is the lens off? Am I pressing record and then Im not? . . . That was part of the fun in the scene, because Sam cant even get the camera up and rolling.”
It was important to convey not only Sams fear, but its specific nature. “Its a completely different internalized fear—of identity, of future, of self-worth, of self-purpose,” Browning said. “All of these things. I just wanted the audience to be able to see her trying to be strong, even though she was completely being broken down, and I feel like you see the little girl in her . . . I felt like that was that moment of this little Sam just trying so hard, and everythings coming at her so fast.” That vulnerability was especially important to see, Browning said, in a story about a young black woman.
“The world sometimes doesnt want to see you feel; the world thinks that you are the strongest, and so you sometimes play the part,” Browning said. “So to have a season where Sam is completely exposed, and it ends in that moment, I think its nice for young women to see you really dont have to have it all together—and [that] if you try to put up a front that you do, it will potentially end up breaking you.”
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