Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze was one of the earliest mainstream films to speak to an all-Black audience. Not just to entertain, but to speak to. Movies are supposed to help you relate and empathize with people of different walks of life and to see things through their eyes, but School Daze directs its plight to one specific audience. Yet, as an outsider, I was fully absorbed in what was happening on screen, even though I completely acknowledge that this isn’t a movie for me at all as a White person. In fact, it may be the first film I’ve ever watched that didn’t seem to acknowledge me as a viewer.
School Daze is about the complex tensions within the Black race, especially in America, told in the setting of a historically Black college—in this case, the fictional Mission University. We never get a single shot inside of an actual classroom, because this film isn’t really about school, but the tensions that arise from being in confined quarters. College life isn’t a normal living situation. You get tired of people you see every day and know too much about everybody’s business. And Spike Lee taps into that episodic, slice-of-life atmosphere as he places sociopolitical contentions within those confinements, letting the chips fall as they may.
The movie opens as our protagonist, Dap (Laurence Fishburne), is protesting on the school’s front steps about how they should be divesting money from South Africa during the apartheid. The Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity, led by Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), interrupts the rally and we begin to understand the division.
There are films that are honest in their depiction of a culture or a milieu. And School Daze is the very definition of art imitating life. At times it’s a bit too honest, becoming disjointed and unresolved in its message. As the audience, we see how Dap is the hero here. He gets it. While his friends accompany him to rallies, they are quick to miss a protest if it means it interferes with their social lives. Dap’s perspective is almost always wiser than those around him. However, the world within the film never paints him as such, presumably at the risk of having a “perfect character.” He’s flawed, but never to the point of alienating the viewer. We’re just presented with the opposition to his philosophies as well.
His counterpoint is Julian, who doesn’t ever seem to care about anyone but himself. We don’t get a true driving force for the character, who we see is our second lead and antagonist, but we know we don’t like him one bit. He’s a true alpha male who is always nearly coming to blows with Dap. He does some downright dirty stuff to his friends and girlfriend.
Fraternities are a big part of the film, shown in a negative light with new pledges going to ridiculous extremes just to be part of a group who doesn’t appear to have a mutual interest in them unless they’ve passed their tests. You can draw comparisons between this mentality and drive to the so-called “wannabes” within the Black culture who are accused of wanting to “be” like another group. Should they want to be included so badly? And shouldn’t that other group just accept them without them jumping through hoops to get that respect?
In a sense to portray the difference in how beauty is viewed in culture, Lee divides the women on campus into two categories: long, straight haired, and short, nappy haired. There’s a musical number literally called “Straight and Nappy” where the two sides have a dance-off to express their contempt. This is a brilliant move by Lee, since there may be no other way to express such an awkward and taboo topic with actual dialogue.
This isn’t the only musical number, but it’s the only one that’s really necessary for a movie about hot button issues, since it actually visually and verbally expresses the characters’ tension. The other tunes, while providing exquisite ambiance and entertainment, just aren’t necessary to the plot.
Lee throws in his own variations of the standard show tunes. Rather than singing and dancing, he utilizes frat rally performances as a form of musical numbers where a “chorus line” of sorts chants and steps in a highly entertaining way. These are some of the film’s best and most tension-filled moments.
The times when the plot is stagnant are carried by some brilliant acting. Esposito gives a wicked and finely tuned performance in his unleashed role, while Fishburne, a naturally gifted actor, puts his talents on full display as he possesses full control over his mostly-level-headed and stoic Dap.
Most of the storylines are left loose ended. School Daze is meant to be allegorical but follows the conventions of a typical narrative feature so well that we expect things to be resolved. We invest our time in these characters and their complex and integrated dynamics, but we fail to get any conclusion to their stories.
Spike tempts with maintaining that typical structure by constantly injecting conflict after conflict, but ultimately, and often frustratingly, doesn’t bring them to a head. However, the director may have done something ingenious by disguising the plot as a litany of questions for the audience, perfectly outlining the clashes between two sects within the Black race.
Presenting issues without really getting to the bottom line, Lee takes a bipartisan objective to the conflicts at hand—something that’s literally impossible for him to do today with his quasi-propaganda epilogues—but definitely takes a stand against the fact that the conflicts are there to begin with. He poses no resolution or step in the right direction, and almost gets to a point where he passes no moral judgement at all, but then includes some very objectively immoral scenarios by different characters to where we as an audience have no choice but to pass judgement.
The issues are vast, yet Lee delineates them in such a concise way, never overwhelming us with the weight of the problems, instead showing us how simple they really are, so as to better prove how “easily” they can be fixed. But perhaps Lee doesn’t provide us with the answer because the solution isn’t all that easy after all. There are years of resentment behind each nugget of hatred, but in 1988, the first step was simply opening up the conversation in the first place.