When it comes to portraying the black college experience on television or on the silver screen, most people will cite School Daze and A Different World as points of reference. Both of these put a fictional spin on life at an HBCU, and were way ahead of their time when it came to touching on topics such as sexual assault and other obstacles that students and the administration face at HBCUs.
Many people have compared BET’s new series The Quad to both A Different World and School Daze, but just weeks after its premiere, the fictional drama, which is filmed on the campus of Morehouse, caught the ire of Hampton University President William R. Harvey. So much so, he penned an open letter to BET’s Debra Lee about his displeasure with the fictional drama:
Devoid of any reference to academics, The Quad is about a president who is promiscuous, trustees who are unwilling to deal with a rogue band director, and a band director who condones criminal activity on the part of his drum major. ... 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. This depiction seems more analogous to a disgruntled, adolescent and unrealistic point of view that some may have. It also feeds a false narrative about the irrelevance of HBCUs.
Harvey went on to state that what he saw depicted on the series was “not accurate; rather, it was a bogus representation of very important and historic institutions.”
When The Root initially interviewed Felicia D. Henderson, the show’s executive producer, it was before Harvey issued his gripes about the show. Henderson spoke about the positive feedback she had received about the show.
“Ninety percent of it has been so positive. And not just people who currently attend an HBCU, but adults who have attended in the past,” Henderson said. “It makes you feel so good. When the network wanted me to live-tweet during the pilot, I couldn’t keep up. We were trending on Twitter, and when we had the big band performance, people got excited. At BET, there are so many people who were educated at BET, and many executives sent me emails saying they were rooting for me.”
As someone who’s watched the show religiously since it premiered, I didn’t (and still don’t) understand the backlash, especially since the series isn’t titled “Hampton” or “Morehouse” or “Spelman” or “Howard.” The show isn’t a documentary. The show is a drama. It has a storyline that includes everything from the trials and tribulations of a black female president dealing with her male counterparts’ insecurities and sexism, to college students adjusting to campus life, as well as issues prevalent nowadays, such as campus sexual assault. It’s these storylines that make for a good television drama.
In a follow-up interview, Henderson spoke about what she would have done if she were a viewer who found the show problematic, and it’s nothing different from what Hampton’s president did. She herself said she would have written letters as well.
“I would have written me a letter, email or phone call to say I’ve only seen one episode, but here are some of my concerns. Is there a dialogue to be had?” Henderson said. “Perhaps then invite me to talk to faculty and students to make sure my opinion is a formed one.”
Henderson is currently spending some of March visiting HBCUs to get even more feedback about the series, but she said that that was always the goal.
Aside from her writing, Henderson said her calling is to mentor others and be a role model for people who look like her. When she got the green light for the series, she had one goal.
“The people behind the scenes will look like the people in front of the camera,” Henderson said. “Wherever I am, people who look like me should get opportunities because I am there.
“I can’t focus on things that are false in the letter, and opinions. I have to focus on what I’ll do as a result of it, to make sure my voice, as a role model and woman of color, is heard by people who need to hear it,” Henderson continued.
“There are no words for how proud I am of this show, and how most of the people look at me. And to shoot on the Morehouse campus, to have black students see us shooting there, who looks like them,” Henderson stated.
Charles Holland, executive producer and a writer on the show, took what he saw at Morehouse with the honor guard and implemented it into the show. Holland said The Quad gives him “the opportunity to do the kind of complex, nuanced portrayal of black people usually reserved for white characters.” And “complex” is definitely an understatement when it comes to the characters.
When it comes to the writers’ room for The Quad, there are definitely some strong ties to HBCUs. Take, for instance, writer Jackie McKinley, who spent most of her life surrounded by HBCU history.
“My father was the head football coach for NC A&T, Central State Ohio and Prairie View A&M. As the daughter of a football coach, I attended all home games, homecomings and any bowl or classic games the teams participated in. My mother also taught at Prairie View. I did not go to an HBCU, I went to the University of Florida, but took many road trips to FAMU and Bethune Cookman College. After I pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, I had tons of contact with other HBCU chapters,” McKinley told The Root.
What a lot of people fail to realize is that The Quad is fictional entertainment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some similarities across the board when it comes to HBCUs or predominantly white institutions.
“I want the audience to view the college experience from the POV of students and staff at an HBCU and the unique challenges they face. Although many of the issues are universal, there are still some situations that are unique to attending an HBCU,” writer Sara Finney-Johnson said. “Yes, we had the incredibly awesome A Different World, but we had never seen the HBCU experience told in a drama. It allows us to tackle some serious issues, as well as showcase the rich history, culture and love that is part of the HBCU experience.”
Henderson’s writers’ room also includes Paris Qualles, who has written for television movies such as A Raisin in the Sun, The Rosa Parks Story, The Color of Friendship, A House Divided and The Tuskegee Airmen. And Qualles doesn’t hold back when it comes to the backlash the show has received.
“It is not the responsibility of the writers, producers or network executives to be the recruitment arm for HBCUs. If anything, I’d wager The Quad has raised the profile of the relevance of HBCUs to those high school students who have a choice. They’re not stupid. They’re the very generation of entertainment consumers who understand the difference between a television show and a PBS documentary,” Qualles stated.
When it comes to television dramas, entertainment value is something that has to be there in order for people to want to tune in week after week. Although The Quad may not be Harvey’s or some other people’s cup of tea, the ratings show that plenty of people are viewing week after week.
As Henderson embarks on her HBCU visits this month, I’m sure she’ll receive all types of feedback, and as a woman of her word, Henderson will make good use of it.
The Quad airs on Wednesday at 10 p.m on BET.