Forest Whitaker is bringing a hush-hush issue that happens at historically Black colleges and universities to the big screen. According to reports, the famed filmmaker is teaming up with Django Unchained producer Reginald Hudlin to write and direct a new feature film that sheds light on extreme hazing on Black campuses. The drama, titled “Underground,” will center around a student enduring harsh hazing conditions while trying to pledge a fraternity at a HBCU campus. The project is bound to spark a good debate, and as a Black college alum and member of a Black Greek Letter Organization, I think this topic deserves the attention of a national stage now more than ever.
According to the StopHazing research campaign, the practice is defined as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” Although hazing is not exclusive to HBCUs, it’s became a custom of acceptable violence on Black campus as right of passage or way to gain respect in almost every kind of group, including fraternities and sororities, marching bands, athletic teams, academic clubs and resident advisors.
I say, it’s about damn time. I praise Whitaker for his efforts to talk about the controversial topic because our community takes hazing activities too lightly. It’s not until someone loses their life that institutions and spokespersons come forward and condemn the behavior as dangerous, illegal, irresponsible and immoral. How many name cases similar to slain drum major Robert Champion, and fraternity pledge-turned-dead Bethune-Cookman student Marcus Thomas do we have to have? According to expert Ricky Jones, author of Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities, over 90 percent of hazing cases go unreported. “It’s not a question of if something else is going to get injured or die,” he say, “it’s matter of when.”
Greek culture is a lifestyle and those mindsets will not change overnight. Similarly, marching bands carry many of the same disciplinary ideals as the military, including a hierarchy and respect based on years of experience. On some campuses, hazing in band culture and other campus organizations happen more than the Greek life. Decades of legacy and tradition are hard to erase with simple anti-hazing policies and a pat on the back. I understand that change may take a while but that’s not an excuse to stop the fight before it beings. Look how far the civil rights movement and the fight for LGBT rights have come in recent years.
We need people to stand up and say, ”You may be my brother or sister but I won’t let your actions jeopardize the integrity of my organization.” We need more people to stand up to pressure and realize there are other ways to gain respect from your peer and older members. And most importantly, we need people to remember the rich history and purpose of these groups. When it comes to The Divine Nine, each fraternity and sorority was founded on principles of academic success and giving back to the community. These were organizations developed after generations of slavery and suppression. It’s only right to honor the founders’ legacies by staying true to their high ethical standards and original purpose.
At the end of the day, no parent wants to send their kid to college and get them back in a coffin. So hopefully, Forest Whitaker’s latest project will open the conversation on this dire issue, and as a community we can brainstorm comprehensive steps to encourage change.