REVIEW : Inside the school where education has attitude

I've been slightly wary of Channel 4's Black Christmas so far, taking the view that this was a classic case of "The Wordplay that Ate the Schedules". The suspicion, in other words, was that some of the elements would be there because they filled out the theme, rather than because they were the best the channel could offer. The caution seemed justified by The Ballad of Nicky Mouse, a grim radio monologue broadcast at midnight on Tuesday. What you saw was a white disc in the centre of a black scre en, entirely mystifying unless you caught the moment at which the shutter had been pulled back, revealing that this was the peephole in a prison door. For the next 29 minutes no image sullied its minimal charms. What you heard was a meandering fantasy, i nvolving Ronnie Kray, Mickey Mouse and several episodes of gay sex with other inmates. Other details, mercifully, are already fading from the mind. Did the season generate this programme or finally provide a sufficient excuse to broadcast it?

I was glad, though, not to have been driven away from Witness: The Morehouse Men, a far more fascinating film and one that raises the issue of whether Channel 4's rubric does more to divide its audience than unite it. Presumably the latter was always theintention, to celebrate multiculturalism at a time of goodwill to all men. But, by definition, any season that appears to be aimed at a specific part of the audience will appear to be aimed away from others; in several cases the Black Christmas rubric can't help but introduce an entirely false note of obligation, duty or solidarity. We should want to watch Desmond's because it is funny, not because it is a gesture of cultural benevolence.

As it happened, The Morehouse Men was as much a documentary about education as it was about being black, an account of an elite college in Atlanta, founded in 1867 to train ex-slaves as preachers and teachers. It is still fiercely high-minded, taking thefraternal rites of Ivy League schools and purging them of their more bacchanalian aspects. "This is definitely not a partying school," said one student morosely. "I haven't seen a keg since I got here." Instead, the exclusively African-American studentsare exhorted to leadership and "command of the elocutionary arts". The latter they certainly have - the programme shivered with a zeal for betterment, expressed with a high rhetorical passion. "A Morehouse man answers the bell whenever it rings," declared one senior, inducting freshmen, and he tolled the phrase as if he wanted it to resonate in the memory for years.

The shorthand for the college - the House - meant that there were odd echoes of the assertive rhythmic swagger of rap music, though here refigured, a power game played through the getting of wisdom rather than the getting of guns. When another senior yelled "You've come here for warfare . . . Ain't no boys in the House tonight", the object of his scorn was not white society but blacks who had turned their backs on responsibility and education. Sabita Kumari-Dass's film made it clear that this wasn't merely domestication - there were many on campus whose route to the top went by way of Luis Farrakhan, nobody's idea of bidability.

What was thrilling throughout was the recognition that education is power, not necessarily just one of power's devices, a useful riposte to something seen earlier this year, Frederic Wiseman's film about another supposedly elite institution, Central ParkEast in Harlem. In High School II the teachers bent double to accommodate the indifference and ignorance of their students, shrinking the world until it would fit their narrow apprehensions. Here no such white lies were told - the students were expectedto grow, and did.

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