Stepping Out of Line?

During the making of “Stomp the Yard,” the new movie set in the world of black fraternities and their traditional style of step-dancing, producer Will Packer made authenticity his top priority. “I was on the set every day screaming about how everything had to be real,” Packer says. “I went and put up all my old pictures, paddles and paraphernalia so that everybody could get a feel for this.” As a 13-year member of Alpha Phi Alpha, Packer wanted to share his passion for the country’s oldest African-American fraternity with the cast and crew by draping the set with the symbols of his experience. “I kept saying, it has to be right, because if it isn’t, people within these organizations will know.” Yet, of all the places Packer displayed Alpha Phi Alpha’s symbols during the production of “Stomp the Yard,” there’s one place from which the symbols are now conspicuously missing—the film’s final cut.

Prior to the film’s release, Packer and business partner Rob Hardy, who pledged with Packer at Florida A&M University, were forced to digitally remove all symbols and references to Alpha Phi Alpha to comply with a legal request issued by none other than the fraternity itself. In a November letter circulated to the organization’s membership, A Phi A’s general president Darryl Matthews accused the filmmakers of using the marks without authorization and juxtaposing the organization with gang activity. “The fraternity will protect its legacy and its future, and we respectfully request that you not contribute to the illegal acts of the producers of this film by paying money to view it or by promoting it,” wrote Matthews, who has yet to see the film.

Alpha Phi Alpha’s refusal to allow the use of its symbols in a movie—a movie made by two of its own members—demonstrates the ends to which black fraternities and sororities will go to protect their legacies from the encroachment of popular culture. (Alpha Phi Alpha celebrated its centenary last year.) But the dialogue about how best to protect those legacies may open up deeper conversations about how an organization like Alpha Phi Alpha can balance the need to protect both its history and its future, and whether the exclusivity that has been arguably both its strength and its folly will continue to serve it going into its next 100 years.

The idea of a movie set inside the world of “stepping”—a style of dancing that blends rhythmic stomping, clapping, chanting and the disarming precision of a drill team—was one Packer and Hardy had been tinkering with for years. Amid the recent success of dance films like “You Got Served,” the zeitgeist seemed ideal. “Stepping is more pervasive now than ever before,” Packer says, “and there is a question now about the relevance of black Greek-letter organizations. So we felt the timing was really right for a film that shows those organizations in a positive light.”

Each side in the dispute disagrees about exactly what happened before production started on “Stomp the Yard.” According to Packer, the producers tried unsuccessfully to contact A Phi A’s leadership. According to Matthews, Hardy made a verbal request to use the symbols and was denied. But what is beyond dispute is that when Packer and Hardy sent blast e-mails out to individual chapters, thousands of potential extras showed up in their paraphernalia for a chance to represent their organization on the silver screen. Jason Foster, president of Howard University’s chapter, was among those who tried out. “I think it’s a big fuss over nothing,” says Foster, who thinks A Phi A is putting too much emphasis on a fictional movie. “I think the outside perception of the film is what they’re worried about, but what’s more important is what people see Alphas doing in real life."

The insular world of African-American fraternities has been seen only twice in major Hollywood productions. One was an innocuous, ancillary plot line in 2002’s “Drumline.” But the other was Spike Lee’s scorched-earth indictment of black Greeks in 1988’s “School Daze”—in which the fictional Gamma Phi Gammas were portrayed as loutish elitists with racial identity crises. Lawrence Ross, an A Phi A member and author of the book “The Divine Nine: The History of African-American Fraternities and Sororities,” doesn’t minimize the potential for harm the wrong portrayal has. “Think of the repercussions ‘Animal House’ has had for white fraternities and sororities,” Ross says. “Think of the generations of white students trying to emulate ‘Animal House’ and that alcohol culture and the number of deaths that has caused.”

The polar opinions of Foster and Ross may indicate a generational divide. “I think it’s a debate between older brothers and younger brothers,” Ross says. “It’s one of those things where you’re not trying to crush the efforts of someone who’s trying to foster greater awareness of the organization, but you have to be consistent in how you protect the legacy.” Naturally, there’s also a debate about whether the greater awareness sparked by the film will be beneficial or baneful. “We wanted young kids to say, ‘I didn’t know anything about fraternities, and I didn’t think they were relevant, but after seeing this film I’m more interested, and maybe someday I can be a member of Alpha Phi Alpha',” Packer says. But Ross is wary of the caliber of membership that the film could attract: “I love stepping, and I’m very proud of these brothers for making this movie. But I think stepping is overemphasized, and I’m not necessarily happy with a person who comes onto campus and their vision of Alpha Phi Alpha is stepping all the time.”

The degree to which these discussions have lit up black fraternity and sorority online message boards shows how seriously African-Americans take their fraternity life. And the outcome of these discussions will have lasting ramifications for the organizations in which many of America’s most influential African-Americans count themselves members. But as far as “Stomp the Yard” is concerned, the matter is settled—at least for now. All references to Alpha Phi Alpha, as well as the eight other black fraternities and sororities, were removed from the film, and Matthews withdrew his call for a boycott. But will he see the film? “I may catch it on cable or DVD,” Matthews says.

Since the matter was resolved, Matthews hasn’t spoken to Packer or Hardy, brothers he’s known since they graduated and has supported throughout their careers. But the circles are small, Hardy says, and it’s likely they’ll cross paths, and perhaps have a productive and meaningful discussion about how best to preserve their proud and storied organization. “Any family is going to disagree from time to time,” Hardy says, “But after all is said and done, you’re still family.” And what’s a little thing like the occasional cease-and-desist between brothers?