He quickly became larger than life in Cambridge, too—“he’s a celebrity figure around campus,” says one student—much as he is a starlike figure around Sundance, attended to by publicists.
His lecture class’s enrollment was open to whoever wanted to join. (The school even printed up a poster advertising this fact, with a picture of him grinning mischievously, his dreads hanging over his face.) It’s not an especially academic class: The students watch films (Los Olvidados; Kill Bill, Vol. 2, the day before it opened nationally; The Warriors, after which he kept repeating the tagline, Â“Can you dig it?”) and then write four 500-to-800-word reviews. But Harvard students being Harvard students, there’s a bit of grousing about his improvisational, meandering lecture style.
His other class, “The African-American Experience in Film: 1930–1970,” is a seminar, and a bit more intimate: He often invites his students to the Enormous Room, a campus-area bar on Massachusetts Avenue, to see one of his teaching assistants D.J. Mitchell isn’t shy; he’s extremely flirtatious, according to students who have come in contact with him.
It’s not clear if he’s coming back next year, although Gates, who needs to rebuild his Princeton-decimated department, would like him to. “I admire his toughness and rigor,” Gates says. “He was a superb presence in the classroom. I’d like to bring him back.”
Though Mitchell’s exit has more to do with the anointment of the more Timesian (and, many think, more talented) Scott, it can’t help but scratch one of the Times’ most tormenting neuroses: How unfriendly a place is the paper to blacks? And how to hold onto them? And how to avoid the perception of coddling them to the point that they live beyond the rules that other people feel they live by?
Mitchell was increasingly unhappy at the paper, those close to him say, ever since Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd were canned last summer. The Times remains an overwhelmingly white environment, however well-intentioned, and Boyd was a symbol and a presence that many black journalists found comforting. He and Boyd, the paper’s first African- American managing editor, were friends. As of press time, Mitchell hadn’t resigned officially. He’s had conversations with Bill Keller about possibly staying on to work on the Discovery Times Channel. But it won’t be as a film critic.
Which saddens Skip Gates. “He’s certainly the most powerful black film critic in history, full stop,” Gates says. “It was a great day for the race when he got that job, and it would be a shame for him to lose that platform.”