Black at Yale: a Film Diary

Here’s a virtually unknown and amateurish 20th Century documentary that packs a 21st Century punch: Black at Yale, Warrington Hudlin’s student project that chronicles how little progress our country has made in matters of race since that film was released in 1974.

I say “amateurish” only because it’s a simply-made film on a shoestring budget. In reality, Hudlin displays great filmmaking instincts, even as a student, in letting his subjects simple “be” on film. And what subjects; the story basically revolves around a young African-American man named Eugene Rivers who one day just decided he would more or less waltz on over to New Haven, CT and start attending classes at Yale in his thirst for knowledge.

That thirst- a pure, unadulterated curiosity, completely devoid of political or racial context- is the heart of this film, and what makes Rivers such a fascinating subject. Quite simply, he doesn’t understand why he can’t just go and learn from the best. Rivers is clearly a brilliant young man who has already absorbed plenty of great books and teachings in his quest for knowledge. The fact that he’s a Black man trying to navigate a predominantly White education system never enters into this picture- he just loves to learn and discuss what he’s learned. He’s intellectually restless and hungry, and Yale, in theory, affords a person like him the perfect environment in which to blossom.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t, and Hudlin interviews several other people, including Stokely Carmichael, all who provide the commentary and context for Rivers’ actions. One of the best scenes in here involves Rivers getting into a heated argument with two young African American women who call him out for his allegiance to a predominantly White and racist education system at the expense of his own people. As he grasps for a defense, you realize this is not a debate between people, but between millennia-old ideologies we’re nowhere near reconciling.

Seeing Rivers’ situation is heartbreaking: an individual held back from being able to pursue his passion by the invisible chains we all are bound by. Some of us navigate the system better than others, but Black at Yale is a stark reminder that even today, we humans have a long way to go.

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