“I didn’t sign up for this. If I had anywhere else to go…”
In a perfect world, the setting of a historically black college campus would serve as an ideal secondary character in a drama about the beautiful complexity of black people. BET and OWN have done it before and have found great success; ‘The Game’ used a football team to spin a story about wealth, relationships and trust. ‘Greenleaf’ uses a church to explore issues of patriarchy, sexuality, gender roles and faith. ‘Being Mary Jane’ explores all of the above through the life of a professional, single black woman.
Without one line of dialog, an HBCU presented in fictional drama could teach so many about our diverse perspectives, identities and values as a race, weaving our intellect and passions around the idea of education and freedom. God knows it is sorely needed for black folks who have missing or distorted views about these schools.
But BET’s ‘The Quad’ had a different mission. Unlike other black shows with respectable runs, there is no unspoken happy ending for the black college campus. The Sabres won the championship. Calvary Fellowship World Ministries is still delivering the word, and Mary Jane Paul is in New York. The secondary characters find ways to thrive, even when the stories they tell warn us about the daily tightrope walk over destruction due to lust, ambition, and fear.
These are the central themes of our introduction to the leadership and students of Georgia A&M University, a fictional historically black college based in real-life Atlanta. President Eva Fletcher is appointed as the first female president in the school’s history, after resigning from a previous presidency at a predominantly white institution where she has been blackballed from several searches from what we assume was public disclosure of her affair with a graduate student, affectionately named Six Pack.
In the first 30 minutes, we learn that Dr. Fletcher has enemies in the school’s band director Cecil Diamond and its dean of students Carl Pettiway, who immediately oppose her as a potential change agent because of her Ivy League background, and on the strength of their ties as fraternity brothers.
Her allies: Ella Grace Caldwell, a professor played by ‘A Different World’ star Jasmine Guy, and football coach Eugene Hardwick; with whom she shares a subtle sexual tension, and strangely, a recruiting trip in search of a white quarterback from Texas.
Several students carry non-administrative story arc: Fletcher’s daughter Sydney is eager to rebel against her mother. Noni is a freshman and eager to be accepted as a part of the famous GAMU Marching Mountain Cats. Cedric Hobbs is a Chicagoan sent to ATL for an education and an escape from the Windy City’s gun violence epidemic, but outwardly desires to find a career in hip-hop.
Bojohn is said white quarterback.
What happens over the next 60 minutes is a predictable mashup of obligatory flashcut odes to HBCU campus life, fleeting references to HBCU institutional culture and struggles, not-so-secret demons which publicly haunt and harm HBCU administration, and just about every conflict plot line taught in Aristotle’s Poetics — including betrayal, extortion, racism, sexism, and murder.
Sydney strips and drinks herself to near-hospitalization, and Noni’s roommate is nearly killed in a band hazing incident, only for Noni to take her spot on the field. Cedric finds fleeting success as a rapper but faces unspeakable tragedy and unimaginable consequences.
Fletcher’s jumpoff surfaces in Atlanta, and announces his visit is permanent. And while she gets a short-term victory over Diamond and Pettiway on an issue of campus policy and reconciles with her daughter, it is clear that sins of the past will be a recurring issue for her future.
In between all of that, you get quick and dirty treatment of important black issues; the aforementioned gun violence, HBCU budget issues, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the relevance of HBCUs. And for good measure, you get a solid two minutes of a marching band performance of the signature HBCU theme song with sound that might have been provided by the cast of Drumline LIVE, and an appearance from C.T. Vivian.
Art vs. Obligation
Yes looking forward to it. Just hoping it's not too trashed up! LOL Folks do more than have sex & party @ HBCUs
— Awakened Woman (@ChandraWC) February 1, 2017
BET had a difficult proposition in front of it with its production of ‘The Quad,’ which was sold for months as an authentic look at the HBCU experience. On one hand, its creators and stars, many of whom are HBCU graduates, knew they had an obligation to make a show out of dueling expectations of intrigue and introspection, entertainment and enlightenment, ratchetness and righteousness.
And with its 90 minute debut, the artistic effort to hook viewers and stir buzz around ‘The Quad’ debut may very well be its lasting narrative. Instead of a careful balance of art imitating HBCU life, we will get a scandal-heavy drama involving a diverse set of black folks that just happens to play out at an HBCU.
There are two ways that we have to look at ‘The Quad,’ and this is a burden for black cinematic art that regrettably, other projects do not face. When we produce projects with the intent of delivering a message, and that message is not overt is its construct, we have to decide if the project earns merit on artistic creativity and execution, or its ability to depict black people in a respectable human fashion.
Several shows have found the balance lately. Donald Glover’s ‘Atlanta’ and Issa Rae’s ‘Insecure’ have simultaneously lampooned and celebrated stereotypes while subtly explaining why we as black folks propagate them, and why we shouldn’t be looked down upon for doing so. That’s the kind of flexibility you get with a comedy — the expectation that the artists involved will jump back and forth over the line of cultural respectability so fast and so often, that you won’t be able to easily discern the offensive from the ostentatious.
Dramas, particularly black dramas, don’t get that kind of flexibility. And so they are much more burdened to be thoughtful without being preachy, controversial without being offensive, and to be funny without poking fun or cooning.
‘The Quad’ played it straight down the middle on all respects but jammed together so much in the area of character conflict that it was impossible to err on either side of being too ratchet or too conscious. The acting was solid, cinematography and editing were well done, and individually, the story lines would have made for a great season of rooting for or against certain characters.
But we’re left with too little explanation about how and why characters are motivated to move, and we needed that to establish those rooting interests. We can guess why Sydney can’t stand her mom but their tension and reconciliation just happened without a device to explain how they get to either place.
We know why Diamond and Pettiway oppose Fletcher, but it is not clear why they would start trading barbs three minutes after meeting the woman who employees them.
We can expect that Bojohn’s black teammates will make life hard for him after arriving at GAMU, but outside of his father’s apprehensions, we have no real idea about his feelings on attending the school and his view of black folks and black culture. He gets sacked, encouraged by the coach or a teammate, and is the subject of racial taunts and slurs. Is he cool with that? Does he get it? And if so, why?
And then there are the subtle elements of the show that mean a lot to HBCU students and alumni who watched ‘The Quad’ hoping for the authentic representation of their experiences. Why would Cedric’s roommate play him in front of their parents on move in day, seconds after meeting him?
“We don’t have a TV. I have a TV.”
Why is the drum major so angry at freshmen and so eager to haze in a closet in the middle of the day?
“With your cocky ass, running my history…”
How did Cedric manage to get on stage at an on-campus party, rap, and not get booed off immediately?
or he would've got #thewave
— katrina (@magynta_) February 2, 2017
Y'all know this is a fictional HBCU because they were actually supporting dude's music. #TheQuadBET
— Vaccine Shaw (@MELODICthunder) February 2, 2017
These are missed elements that are forgivable, but certainly noticeable to the show’s target audience — people who attend or who graduated from real-life HBCUs. Smoother or more subtle depictions of these moments can make the difference in the show being okay, good or great — even with a turnt up story arc with multiple and extreme plots running at one time.
But more than this, it appears that Georgia A&M, the campus itself, will not have a voice in ‘The Quad.’ We hear about budgets but no details about what factors led to their strained state. We hear Fletcher say that she cut 12 percent of that budget, but no words about layoffs, furloughs, program cancellations or other details which would’ve have been a slick way to show that writers and producers as detailed researchers about higher education as an industry.
All of that was the art of ‘The Quad.’ In terms of meeting its cultural obligation, which we acknowledge is unfair for it and every other black show of consequence, we gained nothing beyond nostalgia. Greek life, football, marching band and practice — the exact same elements that most black folks commonly associate with HBCUs, the elements which most commonly draw corporate and individual support to HBCUs, and the elements which do nothing to promote the ‘Pride, Tradition and Excellence’ which Fletcher twice defined in the first ten minutes of the show as the core of the HBCU experience, are the same ones which drew the most attention from writers and producers.
There is nothing which prohibits ‘The Quad’ from being a sexy mix of ‘Scandal’ and ‘House of Cards,’ as higher education as an industry lends itself to great potential for viewers to be entertained by a lot of sex, political maneuvering and interpersonal intrigue, while being able to teach us about legislative lobbying, fundraising and networking, budgeting and athletic management. Given that HBCU culture in all of these areas delivers its own share of real-life drama, it was reasonable to expect that ‘The Quad’ would have delved into them with a more sophisticated view of the culture and its challenges.
But it looks like the show will not do that, and while it is worth watching solely as a vehicle for responsible black dramatic content, through its first 90 minutes, it fell well short of what it could have been. The actors are beautiful people who play their parts well, and deliver performances that make people yearn for their success.
But if drama is the order of the day for the show-stopping pilot, it would be difficult for executives to dial it back in favor of more nuanced views of administration and university culture. The most important character, the HBCU itself, is silent through Episode 1; and maybe that truth is worth an entirely different kind of review of its own.