10 HBCU Movie Moments

Who doesn’t love a good movie moment?! And who doesn’t love HBCUs?! (If you don’t we are hoping to change your mind. You can also visit our Center’s website (www.gse.upenn.edu/cmsi) for more reasons to do so).  This week we thought we would combine your love of movies and HBCUs and share some of the most memorable and possibly obscure movie moments, both fictional and real, where HBCUs and HBCU campus culture got a shout out.  Is your favorite moment here?  If not, add it in the comments and keep the magical moments going!  Here we go!

1.) Good & Bad Hair – School Daze
Though Mission College was not an actual HBCU, School Daze and its HBCU inspired motif has been a classic film of discussion when referencing HBCU campus life and Black Greek Letter Organization’s culture. One of the most memorable scenes happens in a fictitious beauty shop where the deeper hued Black female students with natural hair face off “Broadway musical style” with the Gamma Rays, who are a sweetheart auxiliary of the popular fraternity on campus. The Gamma Rays tended to be fairer skinned with straightened, longer hair. If you remember nothing else from this movie, this number boasting of greats such as Jasmine Guy & Tisha Campbell puts a score and choreography to the great colorism and politics of Black hair debate within the African American community.

2.) Wiley College vs. Harvard – The Great Debaters

Based on a true story and driven by the star power of Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters tells the story of Melvin Tolson, a professor at Wiley College, who took the school’s first debate team to challenge Harvard in the national championship. In these final moments of the film, the students successfully argue that civil unrest is a better alternative than violence. Who didn’t want to jump up and clap when James Farmer Jr.’s character ended with the powerful line, “You should pray I choose the latter”?

3.) Wake Up – School Daze
So we tried not to repeat movies, but we could not leave out the iconic ending sequence of School Daze. Laurence Fishburne’s character Dap ringing the bell at Mission College and screaming across campus for everyone, from students to the college president, to “Wake Up” is a scene that has stayed with viewers since the movie debuted. Dap was challenging the campus to think about what they were doing to each other and the values they were replicating. The film’s director, Spike Lee, challenged the audience to do the same.

4.) The “Purple Haze”- Drumline
Though we desperately wanted to wave our flags in the air around like a ‘helicopter’ to Petey Pablo, we instead were entertained with a rendition of Pablo’s, “I Told Y’all,” an over the top performance with what was presumed to be Morris Brown College’s marching band. At a time when the college was facing accreditation challenges and much negative press, Drumline took the opportunity to shine some positive light on the HBCU, whose “Purple Haze” marching band always had a reputation for being one of the best in the land (*ducks from FAMU & Southern alum* C’mon folks, we said “one of”!). The “Sticky Sensation” drumline gets a highlight in the big finale of the film.

5.) New New fights to go to Spelman – ATL
In ATL we find out that “New New” is actually Erin, the daughter of millionaire John Garnett. In a deep desire to be immersed in Black culture, we find Erin in a debate with her father about her desire to go to Spelman and his desire for her to attend an elite, presumably Ivy League institution. Erin makes the strong argument that Spelman is just as good of a school as the fictitious “Brinton College.” Erin does eventually win and we see her donning a Spelman Tee as she moves in for her freshmen year at the renowned HBCU.

6.) Heritage Hall – Stomp the Yard
Much like Mission College in School Daze, Truth University is not a real HBCU. However, when main character DJ Williams, played by Columbus Short, is encouraged to learn more about the rich legacy of the fictional HBCU and Black Greek Lettered Organizations (BGLO), we find ourselves journeying through “Heritage Hall” and getting a lesson as well.  Though fictional, Heritage Hall featured great HBCU & BGLO figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. This moment takes a break from all the stepping and love stories to point out the great contributions HBCUs, their students, and BGLO members have made to not only the Black community but to American history.

7.) “Is it true what they say about Mission Men?”- School Daze
So we lied, School Daze has made a third appearance (C’mon it really is a cult classic folks). In this scene, Dap and his crew find themselves at the local KFC. Some local residents have some choice words about how the Mission College students treat them. A heated discussion erupts ending with a classic line delivered by Laurence Fishburn. Director Spike Lee uses this scene to give us a peek into the unique intersection of race and class, the question of Blackness, and the sometimes tricky town gown relations between HBCUs and their surrounding Black communities.

8.) Gray Grantham, Howard Alum – The Pelican Brief
In The Pelican Brief, Gray Grantham played by Denzel Washington is a political reporter for a Washington newspaper. It is Gray that Darby Shaw, a young law student played by Julia Roberts, confides in about the assassination of two Supreme Court justices. In the film, for a moment, we see Gray (Denzel) in a Howard University t-shirt, implying the reporter just may be a former Bison. Below, Gray has so kindly let Darby borrow his shirt.  He doesn’t look too happy about it.

9.) Tre and Brandi Head East- Boyz N the Hood
Till this day, we just wish Ricky had chosen another way home, (sigh). After going through all of the emotional ups and downs of this coming of age film of a young Black man transplanted to live with his father in LA, we fall in love with the various characters of this movie. Two of whom are Tre and Brandi played respectively by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Nia Long. At the end of the movie, we see the young couple, after going through so much, head off to college. Tre goes to Morehouse and Brandi, heads across the way to Spelman. #SpelhouseLove

10.) Louis goes to Fisk- The Butler
In Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” we meet the main character, Cecil Gaines’ eldest son Louis. When it is time to enroll in college Cecil wants his son Louis to attend Howard University, as he feels the deep South is far too volatile. Louis has his own ideas about the matter and ends up enrolling at Fisk University against his father’s wishes. Louis goes on to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and takes part in many acts of civil disobedience such as sit-ins, the Selma Voting Rights Movement, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Louis later becomes a Black Panther for a short while, but eventually exits the group, gains a master’s degree in political science, and runs for Congress.

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