Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Athletes, Outcasts and Partyers

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Athletes, Outcasts and Partyers

Article excerpt

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. …

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