School Daze

July 25, 2011

For a guy who scored a major independent success with his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee had a devil of a time getting his follow-up feature made. School Daze was canceled during preproduction by Island Pictures, the company that distributed She’s Gotta Have It. Happily, Columbia Pictures immediately picked up the project.

But Lee’s problems were not over. Halfway through filming, he was barred from shooting at the black campuses (including his alma mater, Morehouse) where the film is set. Evidently the school administrators felt that Lee’s comic-dramatic-musical remembrance of his days at a Southern black college was giving a negative image to black education in general. Lee had to scramble to find alternate locations.

Even with the film successfully completed, Lee must now fight the sophomore jinx. There are inevitable expectations when a moviemaker hits it big the first time out; as though to head off those kinds of expectations, Lee has made a very different (and much more ambitious) sort of film.

School Daze touches on a number of complicated issues in tracking the activities of a passel of students over a weekend at mythical Mission College. At the heart of the matter is the split between two classes of students. The light-skinned black students join fraternities and sororities and wear blue contact lenses. The dark-skinned blacks are contemptuous of them, and more defiant in their attitudes.

Out of this ensemble piece come a handful of different stories: the efforts of a pledge, Half-Pint (played by Spike Lee himself) to join the elite Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity, and survive a variety of hazing humiliations; the protests led by Dap (Larry Fishburne) to make the school divest its holding in South Africa; Dap’s touchy relationship with his girlfriend (Kyme), who wants to pledge a sorority.

There are also breaks in the conventional storytelling for songs and dances (much of the music is by Spike’s father, jazzman Bill Lee). Included is a musical set-piece about women’s hairstyles called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the light-skinned students are taunted in song, “Your eyes are blue, but you ain’t white, your hair is straight ’cause you pressed it last night.”

There’s a lot going on in this film, including moments of surrealism such  as the ending, addressed directly to the audience. Enough going on to invite justifiable charges of unevenness; this is recognizably the film of a young sensibility, of an impertinent, free-swinging instigator.

But for a young film, School Daze shows considerable complexity. The characters, despite their physical differences, are not easily divided into the goods and the bads.

Spike Lee has a way to go before he becomes “the black Woody Allen,” as some critics have irrelevantly dubbed him. But School Daze is a gutsy step in the right direction.

First published in the Herald, March 24, 1988

For my money Lee took quite a few steps in wrong directions as the years went by, but there was still a certain fizzy youthfulness to this movie that excused the director’s clumsier tendencies. The suggestion that Spike Lee does not divide his characters “into the goods and bads” comes as some surprise to the present-day me, especially given the films that have come since 1988, and it’s pretty clear which side he favors in this movie, but he does make some effort to cloud the waters. Finally, the sheer brio of the movie’s approach takes the day, to say nothing of the satisfaction of seeing a film about an African-American institutional system made from the inside out, rather than the other way around.