by G. Brown
This week’s episode of BET’s new show “The Quad” is titled “Things Fall Apart”…and that may be as much a prophecy as it is a title. The network chose Black History Month to unveil its new drama set against the backdrop of the Black experience at an HBCU. So far, the show is getting a flunking grade from one HBCU president who berates it for being “Devoid of any references to academics”.
“The Quad” stars Charles Holland, Rob Hardy and Jasmine Guy in the story of the fictional Georgia A&M University as we follow the ambitions and discover the secrets of characters like Dr. Eva Fletcher who is trying to handle running the university as president while juggling the demands of her “messy personal life” and that includes trying to keep her rebellious daughter Sydney” inline. The synopsis reads like a nighttime soap opera and media review sight Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “sudsy”. But still, the fledgling show has earned some initial decent reviews like from The Hollywood Reporter which says, “This is the kind of soapy delight, created by small-screen stalwarts Felicia D. Henderson and Charles D. Holland, in which there’s a hysterical dramatic crisis every two minutes or so and resolutions that would normally take dragged-out weeks (if not months) arrive with oft-ridiculous expediency. Realistic it’s not, though it’s most certainly compelling (and sometimes more) thanks to a game cast and some propulsive, pointed storytelling.” THR goes on to say “The Quad” “gives its viewers an education by doubling down on the suds.”
But if it is an education, at least one vocal critic would say BET is educating viewers in all the wrong things when it comes to HBCUs. Hampton University president William R. Harvey penned a long three page letter to BET to complain about the negative image of HBCUs that the show is portraying. In his written diatribe, Harvey said, “The Quad” will lead many to believe that HBCUs exist because of their marching bands; that our presidents are unethical; that our boards are dysfunctional and have misplaced priorities; that our faculty, students and administrators are driven by sex, alcohol, marijuana, low self-esteem, parties and a preoccupation with music; that it is acceptable to disrespect women; that university policy can be set by a band director; and that there are no standards of conduct or penalties for bad behavior.” Harvey argues that only people who have actually attended or work at HBCU’s truly understand what Black colleges have to offer and that this show as an introduction to the Black college experience is misleading at best. Harvey continues in his letter saying, “We cannot afford this kind of storytelling. It amounts to the type of ‘fake news’ that is prevalent today. You see, all that most people know about HBCUs is what they see on television. What I saw on BET February 1st was not accurate; rather, it was a bogus representation of very important and historic institutions.”
Harvey’s harsh words aren’t the first time Hollywood has collided with Black Colleges. When Director Spike Lee wanted to capture the essence of college life at an HBCU in his 1988 film “School Daze”, he was criticized for fostering colorism, homophobia and in general contributing to the delinquency of HBCU’s. The controversy surrounding the making of Lee’s “School Daze” got to be so explosive that three weeks into filming, the director’s alma mater Morehouse kicked them off campus because the movie was creating too negative an image about HBCU’s. Lee’s movie did deal with racial and political topics that few directors…especially Black directors…risked tackling before like colorism, Black sororities and frats, and social divisions.
All schools want a a squeaky, clean image when it comes to be portrayed in the media, but Hollywood will quickly tell you that “squeaky clean image” doesn’t bring in viewers.
Harvey should take into consideration a couple of points. First, please don’t jump on the Trump train of calling out everything as ‘fake news’ when it’s not news at all. This is a drama about a fictitious school and fictitious characters in fictitious situations. It’s not news at all– repeating pointless refrains like “lock her up”, “build that wall” and “fake news” doesn’t help your argument.
The second point to consider is that most viewers know when they sit down to watch “How to Get Away with Murder” that college students aren’t roaming around the countryside with their law professor killing a new victim every semester. No law schools claimed Shonda Rhimes is killing the reputation of law schools with “HTGAWM”. Every show isn’t going to be a “Different World” and show a more positive perspective of Black colleges.
But audiences also have to recognize that Harvey does have one major point about how Hollywood portrays Blacks. Just because a show airs on a network for Black viewers doesn’t mean it’s for Black viewers. Every show on a network that used to be Black owned doesn’t mean you can relax and not expect some negativity. The war to get positive images of Blacks and Black culture has been a long ongoing battle and probably won’t end anytime soon. At a time when HBCU’s are struggling to stay afloat and attract students, a show painting a negative image isn’t helping.