Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Films of Spike Lee: School Daze (1988)

School Daze (1988) 
Directed by: Spike Lee.
Written by: Spike Lee.
Starring: Larry Fishburne (Vaughn "Dap" Dunlap), Giancarlo Esposito (Julian "Dean Big Brother Almighty" Eaves), Tisha Campbell (Jane Toussaint), Kyme (Rachel Meadows), Joe Seneca (President Harold McPherson), Ellen Holly (Odrie McPherson), Art Evans (Cedar Cloud), Ossie Davis (Coach Odom), Bill Nunn (Grady), James Bond III (Monroe), Branford Marsalis (Jordan), Edward D. Bridges (Moses), Kadeem Hardison (Edge), Eric Payne (Booker T.), Spike Lee (Darrell "Half-Pint" Dunlap), Joie Lee (Lizzie Life), Jasmine Guy (Dina), Samuel L. Jackson (Leeds), Roger Guenveur Smith (Yoda), Dominic Hoffman (Mustafa), Cinqué Lee (Buckwheat), Kasi Lemmons (Perry).
Like many indie filmmakers do when they make an unexpected hit, Spike Lee got to move over to the mainstream after She’s Gotta Have It with School Daze. Unlike many of those other filmmakers though, Lee basically makes good on the promise showed in the first film with School Daze. He doesn’t completely dodge all the bullets that often here – School Daze is way overstuffed, tries to do way too much, has structural issues and leaves too many loose ends dangling. And yes, like She’s Gotta Have It, the film has some things that have aged poorly (it’s really, really uncomfortable watching the “good guys” in the film do their music routine and use the word fag as an insult). Yet, the film is still 100% Spike Lee – which means it consistently takes risks and is always interesting and entertaining, even if it’s far from perfect. That describes many of his films.
The film takes place at a fictional Historical Black College somewhere in the South (it was shot in Atlanta, although I don’t think it ever reveals where the school is). If you needed to describe the plot of the movie, it’s basically an old school college comedy – with the Greek Society feuding with the non-Greeks. This latter group is led in the movie by Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne – who was 27 at the time, and looks older – remember he would play Cuba Gooding Jr’s father in Boyz in the Hood just three years from this) who is a student with a conscience. The film starts with him leading a protest, wanting his school to divest from South Africa – something many other colleges have already done, but there hasn’t (this issue isn’t really brought up again in the movie – one of the many things Lee leaves hanging). His protest is interrupted by the Greeks – specifically the fraternity led by Julian aka Dean Big Brother Almighty (Giancarlo Esposito) – who is running the current pledges through a lot of humiliating hoops. Among the pledges is Half Pint (Lee) – Dap’s cousin, who doesn’t share his cousin’s social conscience. The women on campus – probably for the sake of plot convenience – also fall into the same two camps – with Jane (Tisha Campbell) as Julian’s girlfriend, and head of a sorority, on one side, and Rachel (Kyme), Dap’s girlfriend on the other.
School Daze is one of those films that basically throws everything at the wall to see what will stick. In many ways, it is a comedy in the classic 1980s college tradition – with two sides warring with each other. But Lee adds other elements to it as well. There are musical numbers – the standout is Nappy Hair, in which the two groups of women – the Wannabes and the Jigaboos – insult each other for their conflicting hair choices. This is a glorious, Busby Berkeley style musical number, with lots of dancing, and it’s a joy to watch – making you wish Lee had made another musical sooner than 2015’s Chi-Raq. Lee here is addressing something I don’t think I have ever seen in a movie made before School Daze – and not many after – which is the issue of judging each other on skin color and hair style WITHIN the black community, not just outside of it. He does something similar in a stand-alone scene later in the film when Dap and his friends head to a chicken joint in town, and are harassed by a group of older locals – led by the great Samuel L. Jackson – for being smart college boys, looking down on the poor black folk in town (the townies, for lack of a better name, also all have Jeri-curls).
The action of the movie comes to a head at a frat party late in the film. Although he’s now in, Julian still wants to humiliate Half Pint – who he (rightly) guesses is still a virgin. He cruelly mocks him, but then even more cruelly uses his girlfriend’s love of him to get her to do sleep with Half-Pint – and then use that as a pretext to dump her. It does seem a little odd that it is this incident, more than anything else we see, that inspired the famous final “Wake Up” sequence in the film.
So, yes, School Daze tries to do too much and be too much. It wants to be a comedy and a musical and a drama about race within the black community, and a conflict between educated and non-educated black people, and a socially conscience movie and about a half dozen other things. What holds it altogether is the performances really – it’s odd that Laurence Fishburne didn’t become a Lee regular as he is a strong, and commanding presence here as Dap (to be fair, the Fishburne-type roles in Lee films probably went to Denzel after this). Giancarlo Esposito, who did become a Lee regular, is even better as Julian – a little man, who uses his position to make himself feel bigger than he is actually is. Lee’s issues with writing female characters remains in School Daze though – the Nappy Hair musical number aside – but I think Tisha Campbell is as close as he gets to a fully rounded female character for a while – and she is terrific as Jane (the film doesn’t really know what to do with Rachel, and it shows).
The highlights of School Daze though more than make up for the shortfalls in the film. It is an imperfect film – probably more so than I remembered it, because naturally when you think back on a film you haven’t seen in a while, you remember all the great stuff it did, and forget the not-so-great stuff (I had completely forgotten the homophobic stuff in this film – which really is unforgivable in 2018 context, although 1988 audiences probably didn’t even notice it – I sure didn’t see it mentioned in many reviews of the film). It remains an interesting film of Lee’s early career – a kind of precursor to the shock waves he would send through the film world the very next year.

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