My Yard Goes Hard: HBCUs in the Movies

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Homecoming was different for a lot of people this year, especially for those who attended a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). We take our homecomings more seriously than most—do not debate this. It’s a time set aside when we can get together to celebrate camaraderie and excellence via brunches, parties, tailgating and a good football game. (It doesn’t hurt that the marching band is lit too.) People couldn’t really gather in person this year, so it’s a good thing the HBCU experience has been immortalized via TV and film.

As a matter of fact, it’s always a good time to get into some HBCU-themed entertainment whether you went to one or not. With the Black experience more at the forefront these days, there’s access to several movies you can watch to reminisce about your own time on the quad, to get a feel for the experience, or just to learn how HBCUs get down. Here, we’ve selected nine films that capture the essence of life while matriculating—or even after attending—an HBCU.

School Daze (1988)

Spike Lee, a Morehouse Grad, perfectly captured the nuances of what it’s like to be a student at an HBCU. School Daze examines the confluence of class, race, colorism and coming of age as it applies to Black American youth with memorable dialogue and musical numbers, including EU’s “Da Butt.” Lee set a precedent with School Daze as this was the first feature film set entirely on an HBCU campus.

Drumline (2002)

Drumline, starring Nick Cannon, is about the HBCU experience, but it gets even more specific by fictionalizing the trials and tribulations of marching band life while commenting on what it’s like to be a city kid from the North adjusting to school in the South. Anyone who has seen or experienced an HBCU marching band understands how serious it is, and the students who are there on band scholarships have a lot at stake if they lose their spot.

Drumline: A New Beat (2014)

Drumline 2 is also worth the watch. This one, starring Alexandra Shipp, is about a young woman who wants to blaze a trail in her HBCU’s marching band as the school’s first female section leader of the drumline. Her journey is not without adversity. She faces sexism, the anxiety that comes with getting used to a new school, and having a parent who doesn’t even want her at the institution in the first place.

Stomp the Yard (2007)

Stomp the Yard provided a fictionalized glimpse at Greek life and highlighted the centuries-old tradition of stepping. The featured fraternity and university weren’t real, but real-life Divine Nine organizations—as well as the campuses of some of Atlanta’s most popular HBCUs, such as Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Clark Atlanta—were prominently depicted. The stepping sequences were amazing, and the film highlighted why Black Greek organizations have had such a major impact on HBCUs for decades.

Beyoncé Homecoming (2019)

Beyoncé became the first Black woman to headline Coachella, and she brought Black American culture with her. She tapped talent from various HBCUs to create her own marching band—including Hampton University, Southern University, Tennessee State University, Alabama State University, North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M University and more—and delivered the blackest Coachella experience ever. The behind the scenes clips provide inspiration and insight into how hard everyone worked to make Beta Delta Kappa come to life.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story About Historically Black Colleges and Universities (2017)

Unlike many of the other films on the list, this one is a docuseries. It delves into the actual history of HBCUs in the United States, their powerful impact on Black History, and their contributions to cultivating some of the brightest Black minds the world has ever seen. 

The Great Debaters (2007)

This biographical drama, starring Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and more, is based on an article written about the Wiley College debate team. The story ran in the spring ‘97 issue of American Legacy (the magazine ceased publication in 2011). The plot centers around Melvin B. Tolson, the debate coach at Wiley College, and his talented team of students as they navigate life in the Jim Crow South at the end of the Great Depression. The debate team is so fierce that they end up debating Harvard University.

Train Ride (2000)

This is one of the more obscure films on the list despite a well-known cast, but the topic is as poignant today as it was when the film premiered. It centers around a date rape on a college campus in Philly. The cast featured MC Lyte, Wood Harris, and Esther Rolle in her last movie. Director Rel Dowdell is a Philadelphia native who went to Fisk University for undergrad. The movie was shot at Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU in the United States. 

Girls Trip (2017)

Consider this one a bonus. Girls Trip isn’t technically about an HBCU, but it does feature one—and it speaks to the bond that you share when you make friends in such a setting. The movie is about a group of four friends (Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah and Regina Hall) who met while in undergrad at Florida A&M University. They reunite for a girls’ trip to the Essence Festival, and shenanigans ensue as they realize how much they’ve grown apart. FAMU gets a decent amount of screen time in flashbacks, as viewers are made privy to some of their college romps, their graduation—we even get to see them rocking FAMU’s signature orange and green. Not surprisingly, Will Packer, the film’s producer, is a real-life graduate of FAMU.

Pride, culture, confidence…faculty that feels like family, friendships that last a lifetime, and a sense of self that this society can’t take away. It’s no wonder HBCUs are sacred ground. Hope to see y’all on the yard next fall.

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