SCHOOL DAZE is Spike Lee’s sophomore jointational work, and was never one of my favorites from him. But man, looking back at it now I love its youthful exuberance. Here’s 30 year old Spike having access to the studio’s resources for the first time – he goes from a few actors in apartments in black and white to a huge cast on a college campus. He even has a full-on song and dance number. It’s the first example of what I think is one of his weaknesses: his overreach in tackling too many things at once, creating an unfocused and overstuffed narrative. But in this context that’s kinda charming. He’s really goin for it.
Since DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X were Lee’s most culturally recognized movies, certain white people pigeonholed him as a guy who only makes movies about white people being racist. Of course that’s not even a complete description of the content of those two movies, let alone applicable to most of his filmography. And joint #2, just like joint #1, I’m pretty sure doesn’t show a single white person in it.
No, SCHOOL DAZE is striking because it’s a mainstream studio movie with its primary focus on specifically black issues: hatred between light and dark skin, “good hair” and “bad hair,” jheri curls and otherwise. On the other hand I guess its treatment of fraternities is probly pretty universal (I have no idea, not having any contact with the Greek system). And it’s about politically-minded young people feuding with frat guys, working class townies hating the seemingly-better-off college kids, the college kids sometimes being too entitled or uncaring to handle the situation well, all things that other races can relate to in some sense. Also it’s about a conflict between the older, establishment generation running the college and the idealistic young militants about the morality of investing in South Africa.
Basically, the movie uses the college as a microcosm of the black community as a whole, though obviously Lee (who got a B.A. from Morehouse College) also wants to shine some cinematic light on the tradition of historically black colleges. And I haven’t researched this, but I don’t know of an earlier movie about black college students – not that this has become a subgenre or anything. The biggest influence of SCHOOL DAZE is probly on HOUSE PARTY 2, which continues the theme of college kids being confused about how stridently political they should be while preparing for a themed dance, and was co-written by SCHOOL DAZE cast member Rusty Cundieff.
For the most part it’s a fun movie, a comedy, but man, you know you’re dealing with Spike Lee when the fraternity movie opens with a photo montage tracing African American life from slaveships to Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Jackie Robinson, etc., all set to the Morehouse College Glee Club singing the Negro spiritual “I’m Building Me a Home.”
Then he throws us into the weird hazing rituals of the Gamma Pi Gamma fraternity. It’s a movie full of chants, step routines, FULL METAL JACKET style degradation and men acting as dogs, crawling on all fours. I’m assuming, but don’t really know, that some of this is colorfully exaggerated. The potentials wear black and silver padded outfits like Janet Jackson backup dancers, plus bald heads, goggles, some face paint, collars and leashes. Their female counterparts, the Gamma Rays, see them and meow lustily, which seems biologically questionable in my opinion.
Lee plays Half Pint, the smallest and least likely candidate. Giancarlo Esposito, The Man Who Would Be Buggin’ Out, plays the sadistic Big Brother All-might-TEE!, aka Julian.
Meanwhile there’s Dap (Laurence Fishburne, The Man Who Would Be Morpheus, But Was Already Cowboy Curtis). He’s in Furious Styles mode as Half Pint’s older cousin and serious dude on campus who has Mandela (and Dreamgirls?) posters in his dorm room and leads his friends (including Kadeem Hardison in a Public Enemy t-shirt) in campus protests. He has some history with Julian. It sounds like they used to be friends and tried to pledge together and only Julian made it so it ended their friendship. Now they hate each other and Dap hates frats and sororities, but does reluctantly loosen up long enough to try to do what he can to help Half Pint get in.
Let’s take a minute to look at this cast, because holy shit. For Fishburne it was a breakthrough, not only because it’s more of a lead than his many previous credits (ELM STREET 3, BAND OF THE HAND, DEATH WISH II, etc.), but because it’s his first movie as “Laurence” instead of “Larry.” Similar deal for Esposito, who’d mostly done roles like “Cellmate #2” in TRADING PLACES, “Man Being Arrested (uncredited)” in BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, and “Gang Member #1” in the Don Johnson long form music video HEARTBEAT. But after this it was major roles in DO THE RIGHT THING, KING OF NEW YORK, MO’ BETTER BLUES, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, and on and on. For him this was the beginning of a relationship with Lee (as it was for Bill Nunn, Ossie Davis, Branford Marsalis [in the movie as an actor!], Roger Guenveur Smith and Samuel L. Jackson, who all returned for DO THE RIGHT THING). Campbell had been in a few things, but this was before HOUSE PARTY and Martin. Hardison, Darryl Bell and Jasmine Guy went from this to starring in A Different World, thanks to a shared casting director. Also you got people who went on to be directors: James Bond III (DEF BY TEMPTATION), Rusty Cundieff (FEAR OF A BLACK HAT), Kasi Lemmons (EVE’S BAYOU); and a writer: Toni Ann Johnson (SAVE THE LAST DANCE, STEP UP 2 THE STREETS). Plus Erik Dellums (Luther Mahoney from Homicide: Life On the Street), Art Evans (DIE HARD 2), and probly some other people I missed. Anyway it’s not bad. They seemed to know what they were doing in that casting department.
I mentioned there’s a musical number. It’s kinda weird. Just out of nowhere the cliques of women get into an argument about natural hair vs. fake hair and suddenly they’re on a stagey set of “Madam ReRe’s Beauty Salon,” singing and dancing their dispute Broadway style. There aren’t any other musical scenes like that, but there is a bunch of music of different types. The poster calls it “a new comedy with music.” Four of the Gamma Rays perform an original song called “Be Alone Tonight,” which expresses Jane (Tisha Campbell)’s vulnerable love for Julian. Phyllis Hyman, as herself, performs a song at one of their sorority events, and Kenny Barron on piano (they must’ve raised a whole lot of money at the bake sale). Also the go go group E.U. performs at the dance, that’s the hit song “Da’Butt,” anybody remember that? I do. And there’s another performance that doesn’t seem to be in front of an audience but it’s not a character from the movie, so it’s just happening in another dimension or something. I thought “I Can Only Be Me” was an amazing Stevie Wonder imitation, but then I learned from the commentary track that’s because Stevie wrote the song and Keith John, who sings it, was one of his backup singers.
There is definitely an undercurrent of satire against college institutions. The fraternity in particular is depicted as completely depraved. The members actually get branded, which I guess is a real thing, and that’s insane. Who do they think they are, Immortan Joe? There’s a a gross sex scene where Jane licks Julian’s brands, showing that she’s more into his status as a fraternity brother than him as a person. Just to really freak us out she also licks the crease in his weird DICK TRACY villain hair. This is like the evil twin of the sensuous ice cube love scene in DO THE RIGHT THING.
Ossie Davis plays the football coach. He has one big scene, done almost entirely in one shot, giving the locker room speech to the team before the Homecoming game. He does it not like a typical coach but like a reverend on a heavy preaching high, and this juxtaposition of religious and sports ritual says something, I think. I didn’t even notice until I listened to the commentary that the entire game scene never shows any football – just the cheering, chanting fans, the marching band, the cheerleaders, the players on the sidelines, the scoreboard, and the disappointed coach. I don’ t know if that was a budget-saving initiative or done entirely for artistic reasons, but it totally works.
Jackson’s scene is short but memorable: he’s sort of the leader of a group of townies who get in an argument with Dap and the boys at a KFC. (Who was it that sampled this, and another scene with Julian? I want to say Public Enemy.) This was when Jackson was still a serious drug addict, but as a young man he’d actually been alot like Dap. Like Lee, he went to Morehouse, which is where he became interested in acting. He was also an activist, in fact he was one of a group of students who held members of the board of trustees hostage to protest some school policies, and was convicted of unlawful confinement and suspended for two years. Then he came back.
The part that dates the movie in a negative way is during a big event where the different groups taunt each other with step routines. Dap and friends have one where they repeatedly call the Gammas “fags.” Society in general was more casually homophobic back then, but this scene stretches it out more uncomfortably long than you’d expect. Then on both the director and cast commentary tracks they just laugh during the scene and don’t say anything about it.
It’s alot of standalone scenes like that and a variety of things going on with so many different characters, and then eventually it reaches a climax that’s pretty similar to the one in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. In that one a seemingly nice character suddenly shows his ugly true colors by raping the female lead. This time maybe it’s not technically rape because Jane tells Half Pint to do it. But there’s no question that he’s a fuckin scumbag. She’s coerced by her asshole boyfriend Julian, who convinces her she has to have sex with Half Pint to prove herself to the fraternity. Half Pint clearly knows it’s wrong because he at first refuses to do it and keeps telling her she doesn’t have to. But then when she says she wants to he apparently has no problem going through with it despite the fact that she’s been crying at the very idea of it and looks repulsed when he even kisses her on the cheek. And she comes out looking devastated, hair and makeup messed up as if she got attacked.
But in this one it’s less jarring than in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, because this is one of the things the movie is all about. Though the act happens off screen this time it puts an ugly face on the casual sexism they’ve been tossing around for the whole movie, chanting “pass the pussy” as if it’s a fun time and not an implication of gang rape (Lee says on the commentary that’s a real fraternity chant).
The way the Gammas treat the women of the Gamma Rays has been a theme since pretty much the start of the movie. There’s a funny scene where the Gamma Rays have a meeting about the party they’ve been told to throw for the men, and how they’ll be allowed to do it if they clean up the frat house first. Then they ask if they’re paying for it or the men, and decide that it’s “common sense” that since they’re the ones throwing the party they have to pay for it. They’re completely victimized by the Gammas but they just accept that as the Greek system. The one woman who questions it gets immediately brushed off.
Unfortunately there’s not much of a pay-off to the horrible event. When Dap hears what happened he rages on Half Pint, and then it turns to surrealism. He runs out to the middle of the campus and rings a bell, yelling “Wake up!” over and over again. All of the characters of the movie get out of bed and come out and gather around him. I’m the serious, political guy on campus, I’m gonna tell everybody to “wake up” and they will receive whatever unspecified enlightenment they’re supposed to. Julian does. He walks up to Dap, sweaty, and smiles, before they both look directly into the camera, real serious like it’s an anti-drug PSA, and Dap says gently, “Please, wake up.” It’s a beautiful, heartfelt, totally stupid ending that only a young filmatist would use.
In a couple ways it sets the stage for DO THE RIGHT THING. For one thing, it’s a practice run of a scene where you see the characters all waking up to a beautiful morning, allowing them to restart with a new perspective on the out-of-control events of the previous night. Second, it has him yelling “WAKE UP!” over and over, and then the first thing we see in DO THE RIGHT THING is Mr. Senor Love Daddy yelling the same thing in close up.
But it also shows what a huge leap Lee made between the two movies. For his third (and still best) joint he had a similar amount of youthful ambition – trying to tackle all the race problems of America circa 1989 – but he carved it into a much more coherent form. There, waking up the next day and having a mess to clean up is the natural ending to the story. Here the waking up is a cheat, a symbolic scene that seems to hand the characters an evolution that none of them earned. Not even Dap learned a lesson that pushed him to this wake up scene, other than “shit is as bad as I thought, I shouldn’t have been nice about my cousin joining a frat.”
Still an interesting movie though. Ain’t nothin wrong if you wanna do da butt all night long.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.