Spike Lee: School Daze (1988) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: School Daze (1988)

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Spike Lee, fresh off the success of She's Gotta Have It, turns his attention to the  educational battlefield of Mission University for School Daze.  In this drama / comedy / musical hybrid, he films the various black communities, both on and off-campus, trying to figure out their place in America as they move forward and what to take from the past with them.  School Daze features many performers who would go on to become big draws in American cinema like Lawrence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Tisha Campbell, and Giancarlo Esposito.

Big brother almight-yKyle Commentary BannerSchool Daze is pretty surprising jump from She’s Gotta Have It, more successful in its look at complex issues and with more outward energy. I knew beforehand the movie was a musical, and I’m not sure what I was expecting, but not quite this. It’s uneven, which may be an understatement, sometimes alternating between serious moments of effective drama and others where it’s goofy to a fault—but there’s so much going on in between I can’t imagine what an “even” version of the movie would look like.‏

‎More than anything, there’s a filmmaking exuberance here that we didn’t get with She’s Gotta Have It. A distinct problem we noted with that movie was its desire on the surface to explore a character and ideas it wasn’t actually prepared to think critically enough about. The form of the movie was more subdued in part certainly out of budget necessities, but it also seemed to be embracing a kind of indie artiness, with the form of the movie itself also saying “we’re going to explore these progressive, contemporary issues now.” School Daze, on the other hand, seems completely unburdened by form—it runs full steam ahead in whatever mode Lee thinks best suits a particular scene. Sometimes the movie embraces standard musical conventions, like the sudden break into a number about straightened vs. natural hair types, while at others it seems like we’re one step away from entering into a farce (a lot of the scenes involving the Gamma fraternity.‏

I’m not entirely sure why that sort of approach doesn’t undermine the issues he’s trying to explore, but it doesn’t.‏Nappy and straightAndrewCommentaryBanner‎The answer to that observation is embedded in the very first image we see - the illustrated cargo arrangements of slaves who were being shipped into America.  What makes that such an appropriate first image, and helps solidify the many stylistic variations that are to come, is that from the very first frame we are asked to stay in the vessel with these black students, townies, and whoever they come across as they ask themselves what parts of this past should inform their steps moving forward.  The stills of various civil rights leaders that follow help this too, showing that these were the people who fought for black Americans to live life how they want to live, and that conversation has moved onto the campus.  If that discussion happens to be an emotional film of differing styles and textures, who are we to judge?  We didn't have to fight to get to this point watching the film, but they did in order to produce it.

It's that collage, and the myriad of scenarios to follow, that made me absolutely breathless watching School Daze.  The film is rooted in musicals, but expands it out to mean more than just normal song and dance routines.  We get the brilliant "Nappy and Straight" sequence early on, but Lee slowly segues into another form of musical expression that deserves to be treated equally - the b-boy stomp routine in the auditorium.  I love the way that Lee uses the dramatic beats in-between to slowly switch up the style of the classic American musical with the soft lens camera and complex dance routine, to the b-boy moment with its focus more on the sharp corners of the set and image as clear as the stomps that echo the soundtrack that leaves the performers with more room to freestyle their moves.

The transitions might seem a bit chaotic to those viewing it in 15 minute doses, but overall Lee is taking us on a journey through America's cinematic musical past and hinting at the future.  School Daze shows that there's a wealth of musical appreciation black Americans contribute to outside of what the Breakin' series showed, but doesn't completely reject it either.‏NotTiny Kyle Commentary‎The “Nappy and Straight” sequence is one of the best in the movie in part for how it uses an abundance of style to make more accessible an argument that would otherwise be pretty brutal. A lot of the movie does that—dig into issues of racism and classism within the school’s all-black community in a way that doesn’t pull any punches, but is also never downbeat and depressing. We get that very subtle “Wake up” sequence at the end, but that really is what Lee’s doing throughout—trying to reach a wider audience in order to shine a light on serious issues.‏

Some of the moments where he does it best are when the style or comedy disarms the audience for a very blunt, incisive observation that follows. Another of the best examples here is the confrontation between Lawrence Fishburne’s crew and the townies led by Samuel L. Jackson in the KFC parking lot, where the same accusations of privilege and compromise Dap is always leveling against the Gammas is thrown right back in his face. In his enthusiasm and eagerness to point out the failure of the school and the Gammas to properly (according to Dap) recognize their heritage, he’s positioned himself as a kind of cultural crusader, but one insulated by the comforts of college life. His angry and almost fearful reaction when accused of also turning his back on his own community is a really smart moment.‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentary‎That whole KFC sequence is my favorite in the movie because it shows how many levels Lee is working at with School Daze.  Throughout the film we have a lot of hilarious reveals through casual camera panning (like the frat brother who seems to be in a hole through a urinal when they're hazing the newbies), but the one where Dap swings his door open to berate his friends is one of those wonderful universe unto its own moments cinema is capable of, and we get the image of the improbably stacked crew laughing at him.  Immediately afterward we get the scene of them questioning his motives in a joking fashion, "What do you want us to think about?  World affairs?  The trickle-down theory?" when the second-hand car they have for travel helps underscore how important the questions still are.  Then that final confrontation, right when the camera gets in-between Fishburne and Jackson for their smackdown, ends right before the climax we all expect with a simple pronunciation of what neither Fishburne's college community nor the townies are not.

I didn't expect any of that, and aside from the camera movement at the end, Lee lets the entire secnario play out in those long exchanges.  A lot of She's Gotta Have It belonged to Ernest Dickerson setting the mood with the lighting.  This sequence in School Daze puts the locus of success or failure straight on Lee making sure every sudden emotional shift hits its beat, and shines by defying expectation every step of the way.  No one gets a big emotional breakthrough in that parking lot, it's just another sad day in the life of two communities who should be working to better each other but aren't.‏

‎That sort of nuance, and unwillingness to see things in total black and white, I wish was applied to the gender politics as well.  While there are some things that Lee did better this time around, that he condoned another rape, this one much less hidden behind style, is infuriating.‏Don'tTiny Kyle Commentary‎I was trying to understand exactly what he was going for there. It’s a harsh, difficult moment (as it should be) in a movie that for all its jumping around in mood and style doesn’t hit that kind of emotionally damaging note any other time. Lee shows it as a horrible violation and manipulation of Jane by Julian, but then jumps immediately to a scene where Half-Pint can’t contain himself with excitement, totally clueless and careless as to what he’s just done, and Dap offering a vague, half-hearted condemnation that seems rooted more in his annoyance at Half-Pint crossing the line into Gamma territory than anything to really do with Jane.‏

Then the film just moves on like it never happened—what was the point of including it to begin with?‏‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentary‎That's one of the moments that illustrates whatever Lee's focus was with School Daze, it was not with making peace with the criticism he got for She's Gotta Have It.  Some aspects of the film seem to angle in that direction though.  I really liked the way that we got a quick pan to the sorority sisters openly emasculating the Gammas and Dap's crew.  There was also the fun sub-plot of Grady making cute eyes with the purple bikini-clad beauty at the dance that goes into a night of compromises where she, again, emasculates the guy trying much too hard.

But the ultimate conclusion of Half-Pint raping Jane I was not prepared for at all.  Her relationship with Julian seems like a joke to start with their only love scene looking for all the world like a parody of the overlit, heavily moistened, R&B music videos that started to enter television in the late '80s and early '90s.  The fact that Lee cast himself in the role of Half-Pint indicated another layer of self-awareness, because we have the scene earlier shot almost exactly like the dog montage of She's Gotta Have It only with the ladies getting the opportunity to tell the fellas what for.  So when he finally emerges from the bedroom and then, that's it, the movie's over I was in the same confused boat as you.

The sequence puts a sour note on who, to that point, was also my favorite character in the film - Julian "Dean Big Brother Almighty".  Prior to then he was the only one able to stand up to Dap and suggest that, maybe, they should be proud of their American roots as well.  But then he has his girlfriend get raped by the writer and director of the film literally to prove a masculine point, and I had to review my earlier positive assessment of the guy.  It stinks, again, of the dominating view of masculinity from Straw Dogs, which I hope to stop drawing as a point of comparison next film.PleaseTiny Kyle Commentary‎You touched on another scene that works really well, which is when Julian accuses Dap of claiming an African heritage that isn’t his. The identity crisis Dap’s going through in trying to understand where black Americans fit into the larger cultural context of the U.S. is also echoed in the few scenes featuring the president of the college. He and another man discuss early on how the African American community doesn’t have a strong controlling presence in major integrated universities, and whether or not an all-black college like their own “has outlived its usefulness.”‏

‎This struggle with carving out a distinct cultural identity and the degree to which it needed to be aggressively separate from contemporary America is something he’ll return to with Malcolm X.‏‏

Newer Andrew cutout commentary That's also fuels a couple of prominent moments and, you could argue, the entire conflict at Sal's Famous Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.  Which brings up something I'd like to continue looking at while we're watching Lee's films - their intertextuality.  The jazz soundtrack color and dance sequence of She's Gotta Have It bled into the musical School Daze.  But School Daze ends with a lot of sweaty coeds, professors, and administrative personnel standing around the school bell while Dap screams "Wake up", and they are all filmed in a hazy, harsh light while covered in sweat.  Lee's next film, Do the Right Thing, opens on Samuel Jackson telling everyone to wake up on the hottest day of the year.

It's like from Lee's first film we've gone from an educational stance into a community most of America didn't pay attention to.  Then with Lee's second film we get a lot more nuance with how politics within that community work.  Now, with Do the Right Thing coming up next time, we get to see how the politics of multiple racial communities bounce off one another.

I also like the gradual implementation of hip-hop into the characters and soundtrack.  While we don't get any full-on Public Enemy moments, I loved how Giancarlo Esposito and the frat extras locked into polyphony of snaps, smacks, and light grunts over the soundtrack.  I also loved how Lee appropriated more than just musicals from the cinematic past into School Daze, resulting in Esposito's militant Groucho Marx look as Julian.

She's Gotta Have It is a very good film, but School Daze is a much more complicated work with Lee already contemplating what the legacy of this film is in relation to what came before it - both in American history, and in cinema.‏

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Next time, Do the Right Thing.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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