Forest Whitaker is planning to produce a feature-length film on hazing at a historically Black college. There's no set timetable, no lineup of actors, and no definitive notes on how the script will depict the brutalizing nature of hazing. Right now, it is just an idea.
Some will say that Whitaker's take on HBCU hazing will come from a place of education; from a desire to see young African-American scholars do better in their efforts to build brotherhood and networking through pledging. But education and nurturing have nothing to do with it. Honesty and cultural good intentions aside, Whitaker, Reginald Hudlin, and all others involved understand that such a project is about a dramatic storyline that will captivate Black audiences nationwide, and move the meter on national dialogue surrounding a film.
But a few problems surround even the best laid plans.
For one, the story arc has already been masterfully explored by jeff obafemi carr; a Tennessee State University alumnus who wrote, directed and produced, 'He Ain't Heavy;' a gripping, innovative look into hazing that is the cinematic standard for any kind of artistic statement on HBCU hazing.
Second, such a story only has a few possible endings -- the protagonist, regretful and confused about his decision to subject himself to hazing, either dies as a result of his participation, quits after realizing the process is not worth it, or continues and lives a life of resentment towards the process, and becomes a part of the machine which churns out harsher, more crushing pledging to new initiates as a result. Or he rejects it outright and never realizes the potential of true fraternal bonds.
If that's a story worth delivering to the masses on HBCUs in 2014, then we're no closer to the standard set by Spike Lee's 'School Daze' more than 25 years ago. Lee's masterpiece on Black college life was examined through a prism of Black economics, politics, generational relations and identity and social construct. It was life as experienced and grappled with, told with lens fixed on the words and ideas of emerging Black scholars, at a school they could genuinely call their own.
If brothers and sisters beating the hell out of each other is the best representation of HBCU culture in the 21st century, as seen by Black people outside of the HBCU community, then the HBCU community has to be more aggressive in changing what Black people classify as 'good HBCU stories.'
Generations of one family attending one HBCU is a good HBCU story. A young athletic director is hired to turn around an iconic HBCU sports program. A lawyer is named president of an HBCU set to close in 30 days, and instead reverses its fortunes to national acclaim. Twin sisters graduate as co-valedictorians. A school cuts its sports program to save the lives of its students. An award-winning rap artist returns to finish his degree, all for the chance to teach.
And these aren't scripted; they are actual, real-life stories of real life people. Most of whom have achieved in the last five years. We're not talking about biopics on Booker T. Washington or Benjamin Mays; we're talking about contemporary stories that can resonate beyond the Black community.
These are just a handful of stories that tell the HBCU story accurately, honestly, and with great care for the community these individuals love and represent. Each character or set of characters in the above mentioned stories has drama; they've overcome obstacles, and stumbled at others. They've each lived successes and failures. But in the end, their schools, their lives, and their culture, could be played out on the big screen not for the satisfaction of the human attraction to drama, but in benefit to the schools that shaped their lives, and how the school is made better for it.
Nothing Whitaker or anyone else could produce would trump the drama of HBCU hazing deaths. It does not make us more introspective about Robert Champion, it will not deprogram those currently on line or hoping for the chance to be hazed into a glorious brotherhood or sisterhood. It will not support schools working to reverse hazing, not because school leaders necessarily want it to end, but because no HBCU can afford a multi-million dollar hazing lawsuit or its negative publicity.
More than that, HBCUs can't afford more bad attention piled on to growing misperceptions about their relevance, academic rigor and cultural value. These are secrets HBCUs are desperate to get out to the public, but without the enrollment numbers, the athletic profile and the marketing budgets to do so, they remain relegated to the memories of alumni and the students who catch glimpses of HBCU value, and decide for themselves that it is an experience worth the four-to-six-year investment. In the most optimistic of visions, we could depend on our Black artists to protect this sacred stronghold of Black communities, and not to betray it for shock value and a quick dollar yielded from controversy.
A movie on HBCU hazing will not eradicate the power of one person throwing a punch, calling for a late night food run, or cursing someone out in the name of pledging, or the beliefs of a person willing to absorb such for the privilege of membership. It may be dramatic, it may be a box office smash; but it won't do what filmmakers will likely say it is designed to do.
And it won't improve the public perception of HBCUs; a notion that for many schools already on their final act, calls for more responsibility from our more conscious members of the Hollywood machine.