Lost And Found 17: School Daze
Good day to you all Lost and Founders. Apologies for the long wait. Hopefully Fort Apache, the Bronx was enough to quench your cinematic thirst and lived up to the controversial reputation it has built over the years. This chapter we shall explore a film that is more on the comedy side but still dealing with serious issues. Spike Lee is a director known for his unique visual style, outspoken comments and dealing with race issues in his films which stir up controversy to the point of critics predicting cinema-goers would riot after viewing his third film Do the Right Thing. No riots were reported during the films theatrical run. Lee made his debut in 1986 with the critically acclaimed She’s Gotta Have It and quickly made a name for himself as the new up and coming director to keep your eye on. A lot was riding on his follow up effort due to his debut success and being considered the leader of a wave of young black directors emerging in the eighties including Mario Van Peebles and Matty Rich. This week our film is School Daze.
Film: School Daze
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Meadows Kyme and Spike Lee
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Spike Lee
It was generally believed that Lee would play it safe and make a film that would make a studio happy since he now had more money to spend and even final cut rights. However, Lee being the young radical he was went the total opposite way and wanted to shake things up just a little bit. Instead he decided to make a comedy musical about the racial tension between students at a black school and address subject matter that is considered forbidden in Hollywood: skin tone and hair. Pretty ambitious right. Lee did not stop there. He also decided to adopt a method style of filmmaking by ensuring the tension between cast members continued after saying cut. To keep in running with the complexion theme of the film. Lee put the lighter-skinned actors in better hotels than the darker actors. At one point there was so much animosity between the groups, an un-scripted fight broke out. Lee let the cameras roll and even included some of the footage in the final cut of the film. Was Lee about to defy all naysayers and avoid the sophomore slump or had he bitten off more than he could chew?
Over the years one thing is clear. School Daze has not dated well in the acting and music department yet still remains memorable and original for its unique approach to such sensitive subject matter. The setting is a black college called Mission College. Politically conscious student Dap (Laurence Fishburne) leads an anti-apartheid group and attempts to make students more aware of their history by carrying out demonstrations and talks. These actions lead to a rivalry between his group and Julian Eaves a.k.a. Dean Big Brother Almighty (Giancarlo Esposito) leader of the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity who could care less about Dap’s conscious teachings. In the middle of this conflict is Dap’s younger cousin Darrell (Spike Lee) a.k.a. Half-Pint who is pledging in the Gamma Fraternity. Dap is conflicted between standing up for what he believes in and helping his naive cousin progress in becoming a ‘Gamma Man’.
It is very evident from the opening credits that Lee is on a mission to tackle just about anything from light-skinned/dark skinned rivalry within the black community to typical teenage college humour in a Porkys-esque approach and the result is an ambitious interesting mess. Lee really shines when he finds a balance between the serious topics and light comedy, almost conveying the idea of making the viewer laugh to keep from crying. The topics however are dealt with in a unconventional, explicit manner. Lee does not sugar coat anything. In one the films key, and best musical, moments we see the women of Dap’s group who have a darker complexion and afros and the Gamma Ray girls who are mainly lighter-skinned with long straight hair express their hate for one another in a dance number now known as ‘Straight and Nappy: Good and Bad Hair’.
It’s a breathtaking sequence reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the thirties, when some actors/singers would perform songs in blackface. The viewer here may consider that Lee is commenting on how the Gamma Ray ‘Wannabe’ girls are less in tune with their African roots and instead adopt the morals of what white middle-class America thinks of them and living up to a stereotype that since they have lighter skin they are perceived as less black and more Caucasian. Another effective scene sees Dap and his group of friends challenged by a young Samuel L Jackson and his group of less fortunate working class men that see Dap and his group as smug sell-outs for looking down at those that did not pursue education as a priority. Dap gets a feel of how he has treated the Gamma’s but not without reminding the other group that they still have choices to better themselves and not live up to a stereotype.
Unfortunately these memorable moments are sometimes far and few between as the film tends to follow ill-conceived, extended music scenes that serve no purpose to the story or develop characters. Some scenes tend to drag and while the performances as a whole are strong from the main cast, the same cannot be said for the other supporting roles that feel forced and slightly wooden. Also, while the film does run at a length two hours it can feel like some things were just thrown in and not dealt with in a way that Lee could fully see through to the end. One is not expecting Lee to solve all the problems in the world but some of the material comes across as a rushed narrative device is link things together rather than organically let certain topics compliment one another.
Nevertheless School Daze is definitely still worth seeking out and investing time in to see a director tackle issues that are very personal and important. This was only Lee’s second effort. He was still trying to find his element in filmmaking, and did better than other directors that have attempted to make films which are just as personal to them late in their long careers. Although School Daze has not dated well in the music and acting departments it is still just as relevant today as it was when released due to Hollywood still having problems when it comes to the portrayal of certain and races and inspiring to see a young director simply taking a risk in something they truly believe in.