These black colleges in Atlanta are some of Hollywood’s best kept filming secrets
The cast and crew of “Hidden Figures,” now available on Blu-ray and DVD, discuss turning Morehouse College into 1960s NASA.
On a red clay hill in the heart of Atlanta, hundreds of black men saunter up and down Morehouse College’s Brown Street on their way to classes. It’s a late March afternoon and the magnolia trees, fuchsia and white pansies bloom into a sweet, tea-tinged breeze. A bronze statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. overlooks his alma mater — the nation’s only all-male, historically black institution of higher learning. At the center of the campus, banners hang from streetlights that proclaim the school’s commitment to justice and equality: “No racism. No homophobia. No sexism. No misogyny.” Beneath them, students discuss biology class and make plans for the weekend.
To the unfamiliar eye, Morehouse seems like many other colleges. But it’s not.
Most schools are not used as filming locations for big-budget Hollywood productions. Morehouse, however, has been the setting for two in just a single year, the Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” and BET’s “The Quad.”
In fact, the entire Atlanta University Center, or AUC, a consortium of historically black colleges and universities in the city, has ties with Hollywood that run deeper than the Chattahoochee River. In the last 30 years, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse School of Medicine have all been used in countless films and television shows.
Together, they are one of the industry’s best kept secrets in the city known as the Hollywood of the South.
“They’re all well-maintained, beautiful campuses with a lot of great nooks and crannies ripe for filming,” said Wes Hagan, location manager for “Hidden Figures,” for which he, along with Dan Gorman, won the Location Managers Guild award for best location in a period film. “[The AUC] is a special location for the right project.”
More recently, HBO’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which stars Oprah Winfrey, filmed at Morehouse School of Medicine.
“A location could lend itself as another character that doesn’t speak,” said Rehya Young, a location manager who worked on “Henrietta Lacks” and “The Quad.” “Like the city of Baltimore was in ‘The Wire,’ it’s the backdrop, but it’s really a character.”
The AUC is a unique environment. Housing some of the country’s top black colleges — Spelman is No. 1, Morehouse No. 4, according to U.S. News and World Report — the campuses are a one-of-a-kind mix of late 19th century buildings and modern, state-of-the-art performance and event spaces, all in Atlanta’s historic West End neighborhood and a stone’s throw from the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium that will host Super Bowl LIII in 2019.
Clark Atlanta’s 126 acres directly face Morehouse’s 66; the two schools share a large green pasture known as Century Campus. To their immediate right, sharing a gate and parking deck, is the 39-acre Spelman, an all-female college across the street from Morehouse School of Medicine. A few blocks away are Morris Brown College and the Interdenominational Theological Center. (Morris Brown ended its AUC affiliation when the school lost its accreditation in 2002, while the theological center, though eligible for membership, is not a member.) The schools all share a library named after the late Robert Winship Woodruff, former chief executive of the Coca-Cola Co.
There’s a bigger cause than just being in somebody’s TV show or movie.
— Cathy Tyler, Morehouse College
Most of the AUC has a history with Hollywood. Spelman, with alumnae including “The Cosby Show’s” Keshia Knight Pulliam, Tyler Perry staple Cassi Davis and “Baby Boy’s” A.J. Johnson, was the site of the HBCU-set sitcom “A Different World.” Clark Atlanta, the alma mater of Tony-winning director Kenny Leon and “Black-ish’s” Kenya Barris, was the filming location for Spike Lee’s 1988 flick “School Daze.” (Lee took classes at Clark Atlanta while attending Morehouse, from which he graduated in 1979.) Morris Brown and its band were featured in 2002’s “Drumline.”
And the list goes on — 2006’s “We Are Marshall,” 2007’s “Stomp the Yard,” BET’s “The Game” and “Being Mary Jane” and USA’s “Necessary Roughness,” among others. In addition to “Hidden Figures,” Morehouse and Clark Atlanta recently served as sets for “MacGyver” and Broad Green’s yet to be released “Step Sisters.”
Most of the films and TV shows shot in the AUC have centered on college tales and HBCU experiences, but the buildings also attract period pieces.
“They come to us when they’re looking for a certain era,” said Bonita Dukes, Clark Atlanta’s head of business services and facilities management. “Our buildings have such rich history and architectural character, because the campus dates back to the late 1800s.”
Hagan agreed, noting that Morehouse was the perfect fit for “Hidden Figures,” because the 1960s-style red brick buildings are reminiscent of NASA’s original campus in Hampton, Va. The school’s Douglass Hall, with its signature circle shape and dome top, became the space task force center for the film.
While Young had always been interested in filming things on AUC campuses, getting approval wasn’t easy.
“We’re always excited to partner with companies,” Dukes said, “but our vetting processes are to make sure whatever the final product is is consistent with and does not violate the university and its ethics.”
Morehouse takes a similar view, said Cathy Tyler, the school’s executive director of strategic communications.
“We try to stick with things that are of a conscientious subject matter,” she said.
That means most reality TV projects, especially the drink-throwing, hair-pulling kind the city is known for (“Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Married to Medicine,” “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta”) are an automatic no. Morehouse was approached by a reality show this year, wanting to film a scene on campus because the son of one of its cast members is a student there. The school declined.
The rise in filming in the AUC over the last couple years is, to a certain extent, the result of Atlanta’s increased popularity for film and television production.
Georgia offers a generous tax credit, and a number of television productions including “The Walking Dead,” WGN’s slavery drama “Underground,” Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse” and, of course, FX’s “Atlanta,” call the city home.
Films also find their way south. Fox is shooting its “Darkest Minds” adaptation in Atlanta, and it just wrapped “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.” The recently released “Fate of the Furious” was also in part shot here, along with Lionsgate-Codeblack’s Tupac biopic “All Eyez on Me,” in theaters June 16, and Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” in theaters July 7.
And just 3.4 miles away from the AUC lies Tyler Perry Studios, which, when completed later this year, will be one of the largest studios in the country.
Although the campuses declined to reveal how much they charge for filming — it depends, among other things, on the buildings used and whether the shots are interior or exterior — the potential revenue stream is a consideration. Black colleges historically have a high number of students from low-income backgrounds, and, like many universities, are in a constant state of financial anxiety. So, the benefits outweigh the scheduling headaches and potential disruptions to the academic calendar.
“There’s a bigger cause than just being in somebody’s TV show or movie,” said Tyler. “There is a need to generate revenue, because there is a scholarship somewhere in there to support students.”
“And we need major funding,” said Stephane Dunn, director of Morehouse’s cinema, technology and emerging media studies program. “Just like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas park their money with USC, we need people to park their money with [the] Morehouse [cinema program] and invest back into us and become part of the community building for our students.”
On-campus filming is also important for the hands-on experience it provides. Both Morehouse and Clark Atlanta work with the production companies to provide learning opportunities, either through internships or master classes. A Morehouse student, for example, shadowed one of “The Quad’s” producers and was invited on set, the beginning of the types of relationships people of color often need to enter the industry.
“The average person wouldn’t assume that these resources would be available at a place like Morehouse,” said Synera Shelton, who works at the college coordinating many of the production schedules.
“This puts Morehouse on the map,” Tyler added. “It’s the NYU experience at Morehouse. Some of the same opportunities students would get at USC or UCLA any day of the week, we’re starting to have that here in the AUC, and students who never thought about film as a career are starting to think about telling our own stories.”
Still, the academic infrastructure for filmmaking in the AUC remains slim. Clark Atlanta’s mass media arts program is the best known, though Spelman does have a film and visual culture minor and Morehouse established its CTEMS major in 2012. Under Dunn’s leadership, that program has brought many studios to campus for advanced screenings and events in promotion of their productions.
Best picture winner “Moonlight” and the Oscar-nominated “Fences” both played on campus before their release dates, as did “Barbershop: The Next Cut.” Each screening was followed by a talk-back and Q&A with the pictures’ stars, including Denzel Washington, Janelle Monáe and Ice Cube. Rapper and actor Common also held an event on campus in support of the release of his “Black America Again” album and short film companion.
Dunn, however, would like to see the relationship between Hollywood and the AUC grow even deeper, with the colleges providing students to answer, in part, current calls for diversity in front of and behind the camera.
“Ultimately, I don’t want my students to just go to the movies,” she said. “I want them to get training and mentorship in making movies and to also get support in making careers in the industry.”
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter (@TrevellAnderson) or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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