The University on Screen: The Top 10 Academic Films

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in May 2010)

The cam­pus novel has been around in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for quite some time. Some crit­ics have pointed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fan­shawe, pub­lished in 1828, as the first piece of Amer­i­can fic­tion that deals with cam­pus life. More recently, British writer David Lodge has made a career out of pen­ning aca­d­e­mic nov­els with thinly veiled depic­tions of well known British and Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, as well as fic­tional ver­sions of actual pro­fes­sors. (One recur­ring char­ac­ter in his nov­els, Mor­ris Zapp, is clearly based on lit­er­ary critic Stan­ley Fish, and Fish has appar­ently embraced the car­i­ca­ture.) Amer­i­can author Philip Roth has also writ­ten sev­eral nov­els set in acad­e­mia, two of which have been adapted into films. The aca­d­e­mic novel has even started to grab the atten­tion of lit­er­ary crit­ics in books such as Elaine Showalter’s Fac­ulty Tow­ers: The Aca­d­e­mic Novel and Its Dis­con­tents.

Like the aca­d­e­mic novel, the aca­d­e­mic film also pro­vides a venue for using the mimetic device of fic­tion to explore cer­tain aspects of higher edu­ca­tion. When most peo­ple think of Hollywood’s depic­tions of acad­e­mia they are more likely to think of frat-house come­dies such as Ani­mal House, Old School, and Amer­i­can Pie Presents The Naked Mile, or maybe sports films like Rudy, The Pro­gram, or Glory Road. How­ever, there have been sev­eral films made about the uni­ver­sity envi­ron­ment that go beyond fra­ter­nity par­ties and sports. In this par­tic­u­lar list I eval­u­ate some films that in some way try to address the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion. These films explore issues such as the pres­sures of achieve­ment, the promise of higher edu­ca­tion as a means of social mobil­ity, and the chal­lenges and joys of col­lege teach­ing. Henry Kissinger famously stated that “uni­ver­sity pol­i­tics are vicious pre­cisely because the stakes are so small.” That state­ment leaves many of us who work in acad­e­mia nod­ding our heads in recog­ni­tion. How­ever, these films sug­gest a dif­fer­ent story. They show the inter­ac­tion between “town and gown,” as stu­dents and pro­fes­sors encounter the com­mu­nity out­side of the cam­pus, with vary­ing results. They also illus­trate the evo­lu­tion of the Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity over the course of the 20th cen­tury. With legal mea­sures such as the G.I. Bill in 1944, and the Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion of 1954, stu­dents from work­ing class back­grounds, women, and racial minori­ties have entered into insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing in greater num­bers. The ten­sions cre­ated by those changes appear in sev­eral of these films. While these may not nec­es­sar­ily be the most art­fully made or com­pelling films over­all, I do think they are the ones that are the most com­mit­ted to tak­ing a seri­ous look at higher edu­ca­tion. Viewed crit­i­cally, they may even con­tribute to improv­ing our under­stand­ing of how insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing fit into Amer­i­can life and culture.

10. The Human Stain (2003)

This film is based on Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name. Cole­man Silk (played by Anthony Hop­kins) is a clas­sics pro­fes­sor at the fic­tional New Eng­land school Athena Col­lege. Silk ends up being accused of dis­crim­i­na­tion by two black stu­dents after he makes a com­ment in class that gets mis­in­ter­preted as a racial slur. Through flash­backs to his early life, we dis­cover that Silk is actu­ally a fair-skinned black man born in New Jer­sey who left home after high school and decided to live the rest of his life “pass­ing” for white, which adds a thick layer of irony to the dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­ceed­ings. Roth’s novel was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an obses­sion with “the cul­ture wars” in aca­d­e­mic nov­els of the 1990s. These nov­els are lit­tered with sto­ries of dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ual har­ras­ment and “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” on cam­pus. The film ver­sion of The Human Stain man­aged to keep some of that polit­i­cal con­tent in the story, while also sat­is­fy­ing the Hol­ly­wood appetite for tales of love and romance. In this case, Silk takes up with groundskeeper Fau­nia Far­ley (Nicole Kid­man) and their rela­tion­ship aggra­vates the scan­dals brew­ing around him. Many peo­ple quib­bled with the choice of Anthony Hop­kins as Silk (Went­worth Miller played the young ver­sion), but he turns in a solid per­for­mance. I was ready to dis­miss the glam­orous Nicole Kid­man as a col­lege groundskeeper, but she also gives the char­ac­ter believ­able depth. To devoted novel read­ers, films can never sat­isfy the nuances pos­si­ble in a long novel, but in this adap­ta­tion I thought the film­mak­ers made some good strate­gic choices about which parts of the novel to include to give it con­ti­nu­ity on screen.

9. School Daze (1988)
school daze

I can’t even pre­tend to be objec­tive about this one. In the sum­mer of 1996 I rented this film from the local Block­buster and pored over it in the days before I started my fresh­man year at More­house Col­lege, where direc­tor Spike Lee attended school, and where much of the film was shot. Many of the nation’s his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (or HBCUs) were founded in the years fol­low­ing the civil war and eman­ci­pa­tion. The film’s open­ing mon­tage (accom­pa­nied by the famous More­house Glee Club) func­tions as sort of a photo essay that sit­u­ates the his­tory of black higher edu­ca­tion within the larger black polit­i­cal strug­gle in the US. “Mis­sion Col­lege” (and all the HBCUs that it is a stand in for) is rep­re­sented as the prod­uct of these years of polit­i­cal progress. School Daze fol­lows the exploits of a small clique of stu­dents over a long Home­com­ing Week­end. Lau­rence Fish­burne plays “Dap” the res­i­dent cam­pus rad­i­cal who wants the col­lege to take a stronger stance against apartheid in South Africa. The sto­ry­line calls atten­tion to the com­pli­cated social pol­i­tics of black col­leges where uni­ver­sity lead­ers sub­scribe to stuffy prin­ci­ples of respectabil­ity and uplift and thus dis­cour­age the kind of pro­gres­sive activism seen on major­ity white cam­puses. While School Daze rubbed some black col­lege alums the wrong way with its depic­tion of sex­u­al­ity, color con­scious­ness, gen­der pol­i­tics, and class elit­ism, the film helped to push black col­lege life into the Amer­i­can main­stream, and spawned the tele­vi­sion series A Dif­fer­ent World, with sev­eral cast mem­bers mov­ing on to star in the show.

8. Good Will Hunt­ing (1997)

Focus­ing on the story of a reluc­tant genius who works at MIT as a jan­i­tor, Good Will Hunt­ing explores, among other issues, the “town and gown” phe­nom­e­non which is par­tic­u­larly preva­lent in Boston with its con­cen­tra­tion of elite uni­ver­si­ties. (School Daze also explored this phe­nom­e­non in Atlanta in a hilar­i­ous encounter between Jheri-curled local Samuel L. Jack­son, and a group of ide­al­is­tic black col­lege stu­dents.) Will Hunt­ing is a jan­i­tor at MIT who is har­bor­ing a secret rare intel­lec­tual tal­ent beneath his tough South Boston exte­rior. Good Will Hunt­ing was one of those Oscar sea­son films, and it has its share of corny Oscar bait moments. For­tu­nately Robin Williams sal­vages it from com­plete sap with his poignant por­trayal of a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor who fore­goes the cut­throat world of the research uni­ver­sity for teach­ing at a com­mu­nity col­lege. (Though com­mu­nity col­lege pro­fes­sors rarely have time to sit in the park hav­ing heart­felt one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions about life and love.) It was Robin Williams’s char­ac­ter who was finally able to get through to Will and con­vince him to make the best of his rare tal­ents. Though in usual Hol­ly­wood style the film devolves into just another banal story about how love con­quers all, and its fee­ble attempts at class pol­i­tics are under­cut by its depic­tion of Will as an almost super­hu­man tal­ent. How­ever, the film also explores the some­times fraught place of the uni­ver­sity as a val­i­dat­ing mech­a­nism for knowl­edge and tal­ent. And in his con­ver­sa­tions with Will, Williams’s char­ac­ter warns us against the excesses of intel­lec­tual arrogance.

7. Higher Learn­ing (1995)

Higher Learn­ing, directed by Boyz in the Hood direc­tor John Sin­gle­ton, is an ensem­ble drama set in the fic­tional Colum­bus Uni­ver­sity in Cal­i­for­nia. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cam­pus issues includ­ing such hot but­ton top­ics as alco­holism, date rape, homo­sex­u­al­ity, racial balka­niza­tion, affir­ma­tive action and the exploita­tion of ath­letes. Ice Cube’s per­for­mance as the black mil­i­tant Fudge (replete with Afro and fist-pick) was espe­cially inspired. Fudge is a proud auto­di­dact who thumbs his nose at the edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ment and embraces knowl­edge as a tool of lib­er­a­tion rather than a ticket to a job on the white man’s plan­ta­tion. In many ways his depic­tion is, right or wrong, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the chip-on-their-shoulder arro­gance that some attribute to black stu­dents on major­ity white col­lege cam­puses in the affir­ma­tive action era. Ice Cube’s char­ac­ter rev­els in the role, and pushes the enve­lope by antag­o­niz­ing his white class­mates with all night par­ties and lec­tur­ing the young track star Omar Epps on how he is being exploited for his ath­letic tal­ents. Michael Rapa­port plays an awk­ward white kid from Idaho who is out of his depths at the school and gets taken in by Neo-Nazis who teach him of his true iden­tity as a white male vic­tim of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism run amok. The shoot­ing spree that ensues hits a lit­tle too close to home given the spate of recent inci­dents of gun vio­lence on col­lege cam­puses and beyond. But then again, it’s just another exam­ple of John Sin­gle­ton hav­ing his fin­ger on the pulse of what’s hap­pen­ing in the nation.

6. The Paper Chase (1973)

I sus­pect that ambi­tious pre-law grads on their way to Har­vard Law School have prob­a­bly watched this film the same way HBCU-bound stu­dents watch School Daze. The Paper Chase depicts the fierce, cut­throat world of the Ivy League law school. James Hart (played by Tim­o­thy Bot­toms) is a first year law stu­dent who finds him­self up against the uncom­pro­mis­ing law pro­fes­sor Charles King­field (played by John House­man who reprised the role in the spin-off tele­vi­sion series that played on cable in the 1980s). It turns out that the girl who Hart has the hots for just so hap­pens to be Kingsfield’s daugh­ter. The pres­sures of law school are brought home in the sto­ry­line of a class­mate who strug­gles to keep up while try­ing to bal­ance his rocky mar­riage and ends up threat­en­ing to com­mit sui­cide. Mean­while Kingsfield’s daugh­ter has seen enough of the insen­si­tive law stu­dents and mocks Hart’s lawyerly aspi­ra­tions. Between the strug­gles of his fel­low stu­dents and his fail­ure to win her over, Hart ques­tions his own com­mit­ment to the pro­fes­sion. The maudlin con­clu­sion to the film ends up being that thor­oughly Amer­i­can story of hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it too. You can be both a blood­thirsty lawyer and a sen­si­tive human­i­tar­ian! Nev­er­the­less, the film does illus­trate some of the per­ti­nent ques­tions law stu­dents face as they try to hold their own in a highly com­pet­i­tive field.

5. Sur­viv­ing Desire (1991)

Sur­viv­ing Desire was directed by auteur Hal Hart­ley. I have to give props to my friend Robert Caputi (Adjunct Prof. of Soci­ol­ogy, BMCC) for telling me about the film and loan­ing me a VHS copy since the DVD ver­sion seems to be scarce. The film stars Mar­tin Dono­van as a col­lege lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor named Jude (a not-so-subtle shout out to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). Jude is infat­u­ated with his stu­dent Sofie, played by Mary B. Ward. Like Jude and Sue of Hardy’s novel, Jude and Sofie in Sur­viv­ing Desire are unable to resist the pas­sion of doomed love. Jude is an eccen­tric pro­fes­sor who is fas­ci­nated with the work of Dos­to­evsky and who aggra­vates his stu­dents by speak­ing in lit­er­ary quo­ta­tions and ask­ing open-ended ques­tions. Sofie is an ador­ing stu­dent who “gets” Jude, and responds to him when he starts to pur­sue her. Some might find the styl­ized intel­lec­tual dia­logue in the film a bit pre­ten­tious, but it is deliv­ered with a style and humor that makes it work. It is also worth men­tion­ing that the film is pack­aged with aHal Hart­ley short called “The­ory of Achieve­ment,” which is a rather prophetic early look at the cesspool of post-college pseudo-bohemian nar­cis­sism begin­ning to take form over in the old indus­trial lofts of Williams­burg, Brooklyn.

4. The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (1930)
Annex - Dietrich, Marlene (Blue Angel, The)_02

The Blue Angel is best known as a star vehi­cle for Mar­lene Diet­rich and a vivid por­trayal of Weimar Germany’s deca­dent cabaret cul­ture. Pro­fes­sor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jan­nings) is a strict and humor­less school­mas­ter who finds that some of his stu­dents are going to a local speakeasy called The Blue Angel. Hop­ing to catch the boys at the club, Pro­fes­sor Rath goes there him­self and ends up see­ing the viva­cious cabaret per­former Lola, played by Diet­rich in a per­for­mance that launched her into an inter­na­tional star. Rath’s story of being con­sumed by desire for Lola is a well-worn sto­ry­line in aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. The cere­bral uptight pro­fes­sor who has spent his entire life dis­ci­plin­ing the intel­lect finds him­self being led into ill-fated deci­sions by the pow­ers of desire and the fail­ures of the flesh. The film also shows the harsh judg­ments of moral­ism in the aca­d­e­mic com­mu­nity as the school admin­is­tra­tors denounce Rath for his rela­tion­ship with Lola, even though he intends to prop­erly marry her. Rath later leaves his posi­tion at the acad­emy and mar­ries Lola, but they soon run out of money, and things begin to spi­ral out of con­trol. Rath’s life ends in humil­i­a­tion and ruin after an awful night­club scene in his old col­lege town. He dies clench­ing the desk in the room where he once taught. The Blue Angel is actu­ally a link in a chain of aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. It is based on a 1905 Hein­rich Mann novel Pro­fes­sor Unrat. Also, Francine Prose’s aca­d­e­mic novel Blue Angel was inspired by the film, and fol­lows a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive (with the temptress being a cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent instead of a cabaret per­former). Lastly, both the film and Prose’s book are name-checked in another aca­d­e­mic film, The Sav­ages (2007), fea­tur­ing Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man as a Brecht­ian the­ater professor.

3. Horse Feath­ers (1932)

Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff (Grou­cho Marx): “The trou­ble is we’re neglect­ing foot­ball for education…Tomorrow we start tear­ing down the col­lege.”
The Pro­fes­sors: “But, Pro­fes­sor, where will the stu­dents sleep?”
Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom!”

In Jan­u­ary 2010 the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama Crim­son Tide won col­lege football’s national title. Its head foot­ball coach, Nick Saban, makes over $4 mil­lion dol­lars a year at the state-run school. The high­est paid state employee in many states is usu­ally the uni­ver­sity foot­ball coach. As schools begin to lay­off teach­ers, deny tenure and rely on adjunct labor to teach its stu­dents, ath­letic bud­gets and salaries con­tinue to rise, and TV con­tracts and endorse­ments for col­lege sports get big­ger and big­ger. Given this state of affairs the Marx Broth­ers look like prophets for their 1932 satire Horse Feath­ers. Grou­cho Marx plays Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff at the fic­tional Dar­win Col­lege. The col­lege is prepar­ing for a show­down with rival Hux­ley Col­lege, and Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff hears that a cou­ple of “ringer” foot­ball play­ers might be avail­able for hire at the local speakeasy. The sto­ry­line is strik­ingly pre­scient. The acqui­si­tions of ringers in the guise of “student-athletes” is pretty much the norm in big time col­lege ath­let­ics these days. The foot­ball game at the end is a gem of absur­dist com­edy stunts, the most mem­o­rable being a touch­down scored by hop­ping on a horse-driven char­iot charg­ing down the field. The Marx Broth­ers’ satir­i­cal take on the uni­ver­sity and the excesses of col­lege sports def­i­nitely makes this a film worth recon­sid­er­ing in the cur­rent aca­d­e­mic climate.

2. Oleanna (1994)

David Mamet directed this film adap­ta­tion of his con­tro­ver­sial play. Yes, it is about sex­ual harass­ment. But it is about much more than that. I’m con­vinced that few films have attempted to explore the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion with more inten­sity than Oleanna. The story is deliv­ered in a series of esca­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tions between the pro­fes­sor named John (William H. Macy), and the stu­dent named Carol (Debra Eisen­stadt). The stilted Mamet-speak that worked so well in Glen­garry Glenn Ross gets a bit aggra­vat­ing here, but stay with it. At the end of the first act is a delib­er­ately ambigu­ous inci­dent which Carol later uses to file a sex­ual harass­ment com­plaint against John. How­ever, the play has a mul­ti­lay­ered com­plex­ity that goes beyond a sim­ple issue of who’s right and who’s wrong. Their dia­logue began as a dis­cus­sion about her grade which turned into an exam­i­na­tion of the place of higher edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­can cul­ture, and the evolv­ing expec­ta­tions of stu­dents who spend increas­ing amounts of time and money to attend col­lege. The con­ceit of the film is that this dia­logue on edu­ca­tion ends up being swamped and over­taken by the sex­ual harass­ment drama. This mir­rors the way in which argu­ments over polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, as nec­es­sary as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, diverted atten­tion away from the under­ly­ing sys­tem­atic changes tak­ing place in higher edu­ca­tion. The whole power rela­tion­ship between pro­fes­sor and stu­dent has changed, and John, who pos­tures as a sort of intel­lec­tual mav­er­ick, is obliv­i­ous to the ways that he is really just another con­de­scend­ing blowhard of the old school, try­ing to lec­ture his way out of the accu­sa­tions and con­stantly telling Carol to “sit down” while he explains things to her. As for Carol it is just as impor­tant that we see her as an enti­tled con­sumer of edu­ca­tion as she is a woman who has (or has not) been wronged, and part of her arro­gance comes from this newly dis­cov­ered power that she is able to wield.

1. Wit (2001)
wit emma thompson

Fair warn­ing: Wit is a bit of a downer. How­ever, beneath the sad story of the main character’s strug­gle with can­cer is a poignant tale about the mean­ing of the aca­d­e­mic life and the value of knowl­edge and intel­lec­tual pur­suit. From the begin­ning it becomes appar­ent that the main char­ac­ter, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor Vivian Bear­ing (Emma Thomp­son) will not make it out alive, and the film takes us through her excru­ci­at­ing last days in the can­cer ward of a research hos­pi­tal. How­ever, Bear­ing faces death with, well, wit. Based on a Pulitzer Prize win­ning play by Mar­garet Edson, the HBO film (the title was W;t in the orig­i­nal play) fol­lows Vivian Bear­ing as she pre­pares to under­take treat­ment for ovar­ian can­cer. Bear­ing is a John Donne scholar, and the film weaves together the sig­nif­i­cance of Donne’s poetry and his exam­i­na­tion of death in Bearing’s own strug­gle as she finds her­self fac­ing the very thing she has spent her adult life study­ing. Bear­ing is a wel­come anti­dote to the dull parade of men behav­ing badly in the aca­d­e­mic fic­tions of Philip Roth, David Lodge, and their male cohorts. Too many of these nov­els reduce female schol­ars to either objects of lust or con­niv­ing shrews. Faced with ovar­ian can­cer and the bleak diag­no­sis that she will not sur­vive, Bear­ing agrees to par­tic­i­pate in a series of bru­tal treat­ments which will be of con­sid­er­able value to med­ical research. In a twist, the young doc­tor assigned to take care of her was a stu­dent in one her classes, which were known for being among the tough­est on cam­pus. As she begins her treat­ments she is briefed about the sever­ity of the treat­ments, and told that their find­ings will be a “sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to knowl­edge” about ovar­ian can­cer. Vivian’s response is that when it comes to the can­cer treat­ments and to the pur­suit of knowl­edge she will gladly take the full dose. Through­out the film, as the treat­ments become more excru­ci­at­ing, the phrase “full dose” becomes an affir­ma­tion of her com­mit­ment to the pur­suit of knowl­edge in the face of dif­fi­culty, pain, and loss.

2 thoughts on “The University on Screen: The Top 10 Academic Films

  1. Pingback: Black Academic Fiction | "Schoolsville:" Academic/Campus/College/University Fiction

  2. Pingback: Against the Sentimental Humanities: Reading Wit | THE OVER-EDUCATED NEGRO

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