Film

Class Conflict: Hollywood's View of the Black College Student

Denzel Washington in The Great Debaters (2007)

These eight films portray a variety of storylines, but the “black college student” movie has not come close to fulfilling its potential.

Almost from the beginning, the American motion picture industry has found life on college campuses to be a valued source of entertaining and at times thought provoking material. From the days of the Marx Brothers Horse Feathers through Good Will Hunting. Hollywood has spent a reasonable amount of time depicting the travails of the American college student.

Yet while American filmmakers have consistently tapped the white collegiate experience, relatively little exposure has been given to the black college student. Whether in the days of Midnight Rambles during the segregation era, or the blaxploitation movies of the post civil rights era, American filmmakers found little reason to focus their lenses on the collegiate experiences of black people.

These omissions were somewhat understandable. Though there were black college students during the time of segregation, movies focusing on them would most likely have had small audiences. Instead many of the movies of that era focused on stories of heroism and intrigue. Decades later, during the blaxploitation era, though there was a diversity of films, the focus was on more powerful and uplifting images than the typical black collegiate experience could provide.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the first significant depiction of the black presence on the college campus occurred, in 1984s Revenge of the Nerds. This Reagan era film used a creatively comedic pairing of white geeks and black “greeks” (fraternities) to symbolically “take down” the man. Nonetheless at the end of the dayRevenge of the Nerds’ black collegiate presence was that of a meta sidekick. It wasn’t until 1988 and Spike Lee’s School Daze that the black collegiate presence was brought front and center, and despite Revenge of the Nerds’ racial foreplay, Lee was still tackling virgin territory and to his credit, rather than continue the titillation that Revenge of the Nerds started, he dove right in and consumated the relationship.

School Daze used the campus of a fictional historically black college, HBCU, to both celebrate and criticize black life in America. It depicted the sense of legacy and commitment to advancement that is the hallmark of the predominantly and traditionally black college, but it also exposed issues such as divestiture from South Africa (a hot button issue in the '80s), skin color fetishes, class tensions between college educated students and residents of the community where these colleges are located, the subordination of political activism to the “get mine” mentality, and finally the objectification of women within the black community. Lee used the black greek letter organization as the focal point of his criticism, as each of the aforementioned issues mentioned revolved around the political and economic influence or lack thereof that the black greek letter organizations wielded on Lee’s fictitious campus.

The next movie to follow the life of black college students, House Party 2, was a comedic vehicle for the popular rap duo, Kid-N-Play. Any insights about the black college students impact on campus life was couched within jokes and hip hop music. What’s notable about House Party 2 is that it was the first black college student movie to use the fish out of water motif in depicting the difficulties of campus life. It used this motif to address issues like a lack of money to complete one’s education and the sense of being overwhelmed in one’s freshman year in college, but all was done whimsically and without the subversively comedic underpinnings of Revenge of the Nerds.

Whimsy can only go so far, however, and by 1995, like Spike Lee before him, John Singleton was ready to take a harder look at life on a college campus. But while Lee was interested in looking at black life somewhat separate and apart from the American mainstream, Singleton’s Higher Learning used the the integrated college campus setting to look at race relations, social stratification, bullying and to a lesser degree sexual relations between America’s youth.

While Higher Learning’s narrative was somewhat sweeping and not wound as tightly around a single focal point (critique of black greek letter organizations) in the way that School Daze was, Singleton was able through a white character name Remy (played by Michael Rappaport) to show how impressionable, naive minds can be pushed by bullies of all races into the fold of demagogues and goaded over time into doing the unthinkable. In the case of Rappaport’s Remy character, he was picked on by both black and white characters alike, and to counteract his feeling of alienation and low self-esteem, joined a group of white supremacists where he was given a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, this sense of purpose ended in a bloodbath perpetrated by Remy.

Given the seriousness and sense of purpose of the work of Lee and Singleton, it’s easy to dismiss 2001’s How High starring hip hop stars Method Man and Redman as a silly lampooning of college life, thereby placing it in the same whimsical category as House Party 2. However, that type of dismissal is a cop out, because beneath the silliness How High was really the first of its genre to portray black inner city residents from hardscrabble circumstances finding their way to a college campus. In so doing, How High depicted a world where classism was far more prominent than racism and drug use was a part of everyday life. These two points had yet to be made in the “black college student” movies that preceded How High.

It should also be noted that while the movies before them depicted black students dealing primarily with liberal arts courses, How High portrayed the Silas character (Method Man) as a ghetto medicine man with an encyclopedic knowledge of botany and herbal healing. Unfortunately, the movie took Silas’ interest in natural drugs to an extreme by making him a user of copious amounts of marijuana.

However, the story also spoke to Silas’ dormant desire to hone his skills so he could open a natural healing center in his ghetto neighborhood. Making Harvard the place that provided that opportunity to hone his skills also gave white filmmakers Dustin Lee Abram (writer) and Jesse Dylan (director) ample opportunity to go over the top with their jokes, while also allowing for the occasional socially oriented comment, and viewed from that angle, How High can be seen as a transitional movie in the “black college student movie” genre, as it opened the door for the depiction of culture clash between inner city students and their new campus environments.

One year after How High. Chuck Stone’s Drumline also put inner city resident meets college campus motif to good use. While the primary goal of How High was laughs, Drumline hearkened back to the seriousness of School Daze in it’s depiction of life on a historically black college campus. The focus of Drumline, however, was far sharper than any of its predecessors, and first and foremost a celebration of collegiate life while providing true insight into the discipline and sense of camaraderie exhibited by the black college marching band--an institution revolutionized by African-Americans and seldom seen in American cinema.

By showing the journey of a young man from Harlem to an HBCU in Atlanta, Drumline dabbled in intra-racial class issues, but was far more concerned in showing the transformative power of the HBCU’s sense of legacy and nurturing. By using the preparation for a marching band competition as the context for this legacy and nurturing, it became the first “black college student” feel good movie while also at the time being the most commercially successful of all those movies.

Alas, Drumline’s commercially successful top spot was chronologically short-lived. Rainforest Films’ 2007 Stomp the Yard surpassed Drumline at the box office and used similar characterizations (young man from the inner city, fraternal step competition,etc..) to also celebrate life at an HBCU. Where Drumline was only casually interested in intra-racial class issues, it was the dominant factor in Stomp The Yard. The idea that wealthy and powerful black people can and do use petty jealousies and beliefs to limit the opportunities of lower incomed black people while continuing to perpetrate snobbish beliefs and attitudes towards those that they literally hold down, was one of the first movies to tackle this complex and delicate subject.

Taken together, Drumline and Stomp The Yard are a useful counterpoint to School Daze, and although each movie owes a debt to it for their existence, they also paid homage to the raison d’etre for the existence of the HBCU -- the development of the black student -- in a way that School Daze’s story, though mindful and respectful of that raison d’etre, couldn’t delve into deeply.

While competition was important to advancing the storylines of both Drumline and Stomp The Yard, it was still just a vehicle used to depict life on an HBCU. On the other hand, competition was the essential ingredient to the most recent “black college student movie”--- December 2007’s The Great Debaters. This sense of competition was used to examine the mask that black people of that era used to navigate the racist world in which they lived.

Based on the true story of the Wiley College debate team and set in the '30s, the movie was not only concerned with issues of overt and virulent racism, but also two more nuanced issues: 1) working class blacks and whites creating alliances based on mutual self interest and 2) educated blacks and whites establishing relationships based on mutual respect for each others intellect. By showing how this mask enabled black people to gain support for their institution building efforts, The Great Debaters was ultimately more interested in portraying the broader human condition than it was in examining racism, specifically.

Though the eight films that I’ve mentioned had a variety of storylines, the “black college student” movie as a genre or sub-genre has not come close to fulfilling its potential. For example, not one of the eight movies mentioned featured a black woman as its main character. Additionally, there are myriad stories of black college students during the Civil Rights movement, as well as fascinating stories detailing the history of black collegiate sports (women’s and men’s) pre-desegregation. Quite simply, there are valuable nuggets on this topic for American filmmakers to mine. Nonetheless, given that the first of these movies appeared in the '80s, they have in fact covered a great deal of territory, and I look forward to seeing fresher and newer perspectives on this topic from the next wave of American filmmakers.

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