Spike Lee’s second feature film is a wild musical comedy that is disjointedbut also invigorating, refreshing and honest.
When Spike Lee first attempted to conquer Hollywood he did so with a script. He went to every studio that would meet with him with a script about college life on historically black college campuses. Everyone rejected him. He returned home to Brooklyn and shot She’s Gotta Have It. That film went on to make $7million at the box office (against a budget of $175,000) and help usher in a new wave of independent cinema. With that clout and success Lee returned to Hollywood with his college life script and found the doors open and the money available. He used his newfound clout to produce School Daze.
As with She’s Gotta Have It, Lee wrote, produced, directed, and costars in School Daze. Set against the backdrop of homecoming weekend, Lee weaves a tale of fraternity pledges, campus protests, and romantic relationships. underneath it all is a discussion of race that is challenging and deeply insightful. On top of that it’s also a musical.
The film follows an array of people navigating life on campus. Dap, played by Lawrence Fishburne, is a protester and activist on campus. The university has money invested in South Africa which at the time still operated under Apartheid. Sap and his fellow protesters are in constant conflict with the men of the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity lead by Julian “Dean Big Brother Almighty” player by Giancarlo Esposito. The fraternity objects to the protest and uses their pledges in a humiliating demonstration to disrupt the protest.
This campus is populated by fascination people. To say the movie is about Dap vs Julian is reductive. It leaves out Darrell “Half-Pint” player by Spike Lee. He’s Dap’s cousin and he’s pledging Gamma. For him the weekend is about who’s he’s going to become and what kind of person the fraternity is going to turn him into. It also leaves out Jane, Julian’s girlfriend and head of the Gamma sorority. She loves Julian and wants to support the fraternity, but at what cost? It would also leave out Rachel. She’s been dating Dap but struggles with her own identity and place on campus. There isn’t one central conflict. There are a million. This film presents a kaleidoscopic view of life on campus.
This wide view is held together by some strong central themes. Classism, elitism, and colorism are a few of the biggest themes the movie tackles.
There’s a fantastic sequence where Dap and his friends discuss how far they should take their political activism. Dap’s friends are all for the cause, but none of them want to risk their place at the school with potential expulsion. Their parents worked so hard so they could be the first ones to go to college. Following this they go to a restaurant where they encounter a group of locals lead by Leeds played by Samuel L Jackson. The locals give the college kids a hard time. Dap insists they are all brothers. At which Leeds berates the kids for coming to town taking all the jobs and looking down on the locals. The college boys drive home and have a quiet scene where they let it all sink in. These three scenes in connection are such an amazing distillation of the themes of the film. It’s worth watching the movie just for this.
The other big theme of the film is colorism. the light skinned women of the gamma rays sorority have it out with the darker skinned women in a massive old fashioned Hollywood musical number. They clash over skin color and hair. Natural vs straightened hair. The fact that Spike Lee turns this debate and very sensitive topic into a musical number is a brilliant decision. It turns what would have been and awkward and potentially vitriolic scene into a something that can be more easily digested. It also interprets conflict through dance. As the women dance and out dance each other with varying styles it brings home the conflict without turning it into a slugfest. He follows the old musical rule. Talk until the emotions become too much at which point you sing. Sing until the emotions become too much. Then you dance. It’s a stunning musical number.
Just two movies in and some strong motifs start to turn up in his work. The first is that everyone is heard from. Every perspective is given a chance to speak. The other is music as a means of expressing theme. I’m Shes Gotta Have It, there is a dance sequence shot in vivid color in the middle of the film. In School Daze, there is an over abundance of musical moments.
That over abundance is really the problem with the movie. There are too many musical moments. Too many songs that don’t always serve a point. Too many sex scenes including the weirdest sex scene I’ve ever scene in a movie. There is too much hazing. There are endless scenes of the Gamma men hazing the pledges. It’s just too much.
Looking back at the film it’s very disjointed. There are scenes of deep realism followed by scenes of absurd comedy followed by tragic moments followed by musical numbers. In the moment it all works and flows, but looking back it feels like I watched a couple of different movies.
Full disclosure I was expecting to hate this movie. I’m not a big fan of college comedies, but there is so much more going on in this one. It opened my eyes to problems and discussions I never knew existed. I feel like I peaked behind the curtain and saw a brand new perspective I hadn’t considered before. there is so much going on in this movie to think about discuss and absorb. The movie feels fresh, prescient, and relevant today. Definitely check it out. It’s available to rent anywhere you rent your movies.
It’s my cup of tea. A-