Films about African Americans in higher education are a relatively new phenomenon but they, like other films about Blacks, still frequently resort to stereotypes.
In Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” John Singleton’s “Higher Learning,” and other less-known movies such as “Blue Chips” and “The Program,” African-American students tend to be shown as athletes, outcasts or partyers with little interest or engagement in the academic life of colleges and universities.
“There has been a very narrow portrayal,” said Henry Hampton, producer of the award-winning “Eyes on the Prize” civil rights documentary. “For the last five to seven years, more Black films are in production, but the stereotypes persist and characters are one-dimensional. The problem is that we need to get more thoughtful portrayals,” Hampton said.
“I am particularly concerned about the lack of portrayals of people who succeed academically. At the same time, we allow them without protest. Young people have got to have academic excellence as an attainable goal that is represented in film. There’s a missed opportunity to show variety.”
Reality for many minority students in higher education is that they often have to overcome the notion that they are getting a “free ride” or are in some way less qualified than other students. One of the reasons to be concerned about one-sided portrayals of the college experience for minorities is that the images may extend beyond the dark movie theaters into the minds of professors and fellow students.
Spike Lee’s film “School Daze” was one of the first films produced by an African-American director that addressed life on a predominantly Black campus during the 1980s. While some report that many of the portrayals were accurate, it fell short of exploring the academic dimension of college life. Its premise was to take a hard and honest look at the social side of college life dealing with fraternities and sororities, classism and prejudice among African Americans.
Monty Ross, who co-produced the movie with Spike Lee, described it as an exercise in dealing with many of the issues that carry over into the classroom. “Overall, the weekend of homecoming was used to deal with issues affecting the school and inner activities of the student body as it relates to skin color, hair and African-American support of the school, as well as hazing,” Ross said. “It explored the issues of sororities and fraternities, but the classroom was part of it.”
Subtle Issues Overwhelmed
More recently, John Singleton attempted to address issues of race relations and campus polarization on a majority campus in his film “Higher Learning.” However, the day-to-day subtle issues that are a fact of life on many American campuses were overshadowed by stereotypical images outside the norm. Its main white character was recruited by neo-Nazis because of bad experiences with an insensitive Black roommate, and its main Black character spent his time demanding his athletic scholarship money and dodging bullets and violence on campus.
Singleton did offer some new elements, such as an older perpetual student played by rapper Ice Cube. Ice Cube began by benignly guiding newcomers, but his advice quickly became one of advocating violence as a solution to problems. The Black characters who weren’t athletes were from the “hood.” And none of the main Black characters were presented in a way to endear the audience. Before the athlete was hunted down by his former roommate-turned-neo-Nazi, we saw him expect special favors from the only Black faculty member we see, demand scholarship money, and show up late for track practice because he feels superior to everyone else on the team.
Frequently, African-American students on campus are portrayed as athletes with serious deficiencies in reading and basic skills and the classroom is merely a backdrop to the football field, basketball court or track. Movies such as “Blue Chips,” “The Program” and the highly-acclaimed documentary “Hoop Dreams” all deal with the experience of talented athletes whose primary goal is to transcend their struggling economic backgrounds with sports. College is simply a vehicle to their dreams.
While the movies address an overwhelming sentiment among many young students that sports can lead to riches and fame as coaches help them through college, there is little balance or representation of the majority of students who do not enter college on athletic scholarships. Nor do they tend to represent the middle- and upper-class students who go to class every day, graduate in four years and have aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers and engineers.
“Blacks are portrayed as being generally deficient,” said Dr. Jesse A. Rhines, assistant professor of African-American studies with a concentration in film at Rutgers University, Newark campus. “There is … a preference for sports and entertainment over education in these films.”
“Hoop Dreams” is credited with being more ambitious in its complex depiction of the dream that many poor, urban youth carry of becoming the next Shaquille O’Neal. In the film, two boys are followed as they grow, from the playground to the Catholic high school that produced Isiah Thomas. Their lives are shown in detail as one is forced back to his neighborhood school while the other continues the struggle to lift his family out of poverty. College is only a way to continue to play basketball and be noticed by scouts. In this true story, few teachers or coaches talk to him about other career choices besides shooting a basketball.
“The current crop of jock films are primarily the fish out of water stories,” said Butch Robinson, co-writer and producer of the film “Drop Squad,” which was released in 1994. The film, which Spike Lee executive produced, is about an African-American advertising executive who teaches his firm how to push unwanted products on his community in order to rise to the top. “The presentation of Blacks in higher education is extremely stereotypical in breadth, with no complexity to the characters.” Robinson said.
“I think whites in general like their Negroes docile and concerned about things other than politics, education and their rights. The idea even with `Hoop Dreams’ and the majority of films that receive the green light [is that they] provide a certain comfort for the majority viewers who do not see African Americans expressing the same desires as them. It makes more sense to perpetuate the idea of life in the ghetto and triumph if a jump shot is hit. The wonderful back story in `Hoop Dreams’ was that it didn’t work,” said Robinson.
Robinson adds that stereotypes persist when it comes to higher education. African-American characters in these films are always characters where their “Blackness” is the prevalent issue in their role, he said. A 1970s comedy, “Soul Man,” depicted Black actress Rae Dawn Chung at Harvard University but, unlike her counterparts, she was a single mother working in the university’s cafeteria to make ends meet.
`The Men of Morehouse’
Short films, which are not always seen by mass audiences, are credited with doing a better job at telling a broader range of stories that are rarely seen. For example, The “Men of Morehouse,” made by California Newsreel, examines the making of the Morehouse College student, and aired last year on public television.
California Newsreel, based in San Francisco, has released several movies that address aspects of Black life including documentaries such as “Frosh,” which looks at the first-year college experience through the eyes of an array of students, some African American. Another film, “Skin Deep,” features roundtable discussions between students of different ethnic backgrounds on the subject of race. A new film, “W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography in Four Voices,” features perspectives on the educator’s life from author Toni Cade Bambara and others. Many of these documentaries are being used to fill the void through PBS and find their way into the classroom.
But with all of the criticism about the shortcomings of films that address the African-American experience, particularly on the college campus, many filmmakers and those in the industry point the finger back at viewing audiences who continue to support stereotypical films. For African Americans, Robinson describes it as simply a matter of limited opportunities for Black filmmakers.
“I have yet to see a film by a Black filmmaker that was not ambitious,” Robinson said. “The prevailing thought is that they may not get another shot at it. But we are asked to solve all of the problems. The (Black) audience is starving to see themselves, see their story. We don’t have the luxury to tell all the stories. If you go to see a Black film, nine times out of 10 it will be a ghetto film. We are allowed to make films about survival.”
In the African-American community, the mission of telling the story of the community has frequently fallen in the hands of someone else. It wasn’t until the beginning of this decade that doors have begun to open to more African-American directors, who have begun to control images (under the direction of funding studios).
Sensitivity about images in the African-American community is based on a long legacy of negative portrayals of Blacks in film. Some of the earliest films depicting African Americans produced by the American Mutoscope company included such fares as “Trilby,” an excerpted moment from the popular play “Trilby,” and “Little Billee,” vignettes of African Americans in “characteristic poses.” “A Hard Wash,” shows a Black woman scrubbing her child. Spectators were to consider the scene humorous since no matter how hard the mother scrubbed, she would never get him “truly clean.” “Watermelon Feast” and “Dancing Darkies” were filled with stereotypes and conformed to degrading, white-imposed stereotypes. That trend continued through “Birth of a Nation,” which played on white fears of newly-freed slaves and portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in a heroic role.
Even in the hands of African Americans, films sometimes perpetuate stereotypical images. In “House Party II” the main characters, Kid and Play, spend most of their time on the college campus partying, with little representation of the average student who can’t sing or dance their way through the rigors of college life.
“It is a really complicated issue,” said Cornelius Moore, co-director of California Newsreel. “The reality is that there have been few movies about education. We are only talking about a handful of movies during the past few years. The debate is much more charged, because there aren’t that many Black films and we want to be portrayed in the right way, whatever that is. For us, it is more than just entertainment.”
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