Widely criticized as one of the more egregious examples of Spike Lee’s spin-painting approach to telling stories, School Daze is, if nothing else, a compelling time capsule of racial politics in the late ‘80s, ethnographically sealed-off in a hothouse micro-environment (an all-black college campus) that’s as constrictive as Lee’s varying plot threads and stylistic whims are profuse. At the heart of the film’s tension are the simmering social divisions between the school’s “Wannabes” and “Jigaboos,” or, in other words, the light-skinned, integration-aspiring, economically well-off students versus the dark-skinned, militant, socially and politically conscious students. (I’ll give you one guess as to which side of the division Lee seems to be endorsing in the film’s Brechtian, extremely divisive finale.)
Laurence Fishburne plays Dap, the fatigue-wearing, burgeoning campus radical who stages demonstrations to protest the fact that Mission College (more or less a stand-in for Lee’s own alma mater Morehouse University) has not made it a policy to divest from Apartheid-stricken South Africa (as many whiter-than-white Ivy League universities had already done). On the opposing side of the spectrum is Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), the “Big Brother Almigh-tee” of the Gamma Phi Gamma frat chapter, who exemplify the sort of navel-gazing, hermetic self-involvement that is exactly what Dap is standing up against. (The same complacency that Spike Lee as a director means to denounce as well, though it must be admitted that the bulk of his film is devoted to youthful nostalgia in full blush, and not the political commitment that would characterize his next batch of films, especially Jungle Fever and Malcolm X.) On the distaff side of the social spectrum are the meowing Gamma Rays, with their chemically straightened hair and blue contact lenses, and the sorority-rejecting, proudly Nubian women—one of whom, Dap’s girlfriend Rachel, is afraid to admit she wants to pledge Gamma Ray next semester.
The film’s central argument is that black matriculation is undercut by internal divisions—and in some cases external, as exemplified by the scene at a KFC where a gang of jobless blacks led by Samuel L. Jackson chastise Dap and his sense of “consciousness” by reminding him that, college or not, he’s still “always going to be a nigger” as far as white society is concerned. (It’s worth comparing Lee’s take on higher education with Bill Cosby’s, especially considering that the Cosby Show spinoff A Different World—which portrayed black college as the epitome of middle-class, apolitical existence—featured School Daze cast members Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, and Darryl M. Bell.) But breaking that momentum and scattering its dialectic power to the wind is a whole batch of Lee’s trademark musical-not-musical sequences.
To clarify, Lee has always been an extraordinarily musical-influenced filmmaker, and many of his most famous set pieces have been as much edited and propelled by their musical thrust as by their narrative or thematic impact. Big Daddy Love’s roll call in Do the Right Thing, Flipper’s visit to the crack house in Jungle Fever, and even the cadences of Monty’s litany against every social subsection at the center of 25th Hour all ebb and flow like verse and chorus of a showstopping musical centerpiece. School Daze one-ups them all with a cornucopia of different musical montages (Motown girl group, go-go proto-hip-hop, frathouse step shows), including one (“Straight and Nappy”) that sends up the Broadway-influenced tenet of having musical numbers act as an extension of the characters’ subconscious thoughts. But the West Side Story-esque face-off between the two sets of girls at the fantasy location of Madame Re-Re’s Beauty Salon (choreographed so that hair-pulling dominates over Chaînés) rather inverts the formula by removing the sequence from the context of archetypal musicals, essentially reflecting the students’ self-involvement and blindness to their own prejudices. School Daze isn’t going to convert anyone who considers Lee a filmmaker whose ambitions exceed his grasp, but for those who savor their arguments loose and full of tangents, it is as rich in rewards as other second-gear Lee films (Summer of Sam, Crooklyn).