Self-Hatred, Intra-Race Discrimination, Class and The Poetics of Spike Lee’s School Daze
Spike Lee—an African American filmmaker from Brooklyn, NY—is known for setting fashion trends, controversy, his love of the New York Knicks, and strong films. Unfortunately, even though it was profitable at the box office, School Daze (1988) is not considered one such film. School Daze contains elements of a musical, a drama, and a comedy rolled into a medley. Lee himself affirms this, ”School Daze isn’t really a musical piece. But it’s not a comedy or drama either. School Daze is a complex hybrid of all the above. It’s hard to describe in a sentence” (Patterson 91). The fact that it does not stick to one style or genre makes its narrative difficult to follow. Though a portion of its message is to “uplift the race”—and to bring attention to Apartheid, a system of legal racial segregation that once existed in South Africa—this message is easily lost in frat house tomfoolery and dorm room lust. Despite critical mauling, and the threat of loss of funding, Spike Lee created a narrative of the historically black college experience that cemented his reputation as a tough skinned director who was willing to take risks in expressing his ideals of intrarace discrimination, and achieving his goal of critiquing the African American community during an important moment in its
history. This work will address the poetics of Spike Lee’s School Daze, along with the elements of self-hatred, race, and class in the film.
Coming off the surprise success of She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee was poised and ready to begin a second project. He proved in his initial effort that he could negotiate financial setbacks, turn a profit and draw black audiences. Things were so financially bleak on the set of the film, Lee recycled soda bottles to raise funds for the film’s completion. Undeterred by the impediment, Lee would go on to make $8 million domestically with School Daze (Aftab 61). The film’s domestic take home is even more impressive once one considers it had a shoestring budget of only $175,000. “SGHI” was also unique because it was a crossover hit as well, drawing in movie-goers outside of the African American community. These patrons viewed the film as a comedy, due to the antics of Lee’s breakout character Mars Blackmon. While reflecting on his initial film success, Lee stated, “I truly believe I was put here to make films, it’s as simple at that” (Lee 17). Quietly, Lee was carving out a niche for himself in the film industry. During this period, Lee was billed as the leader of contemporary African American cinema (Antonio 1). As a result, he began to dream of finally having a real budget and bringing his next screenplay, School Daze to life.
School Daze was set to be released by Island Pictures with a budget of $4 million. However, Lee found out quickly that this would not be the case. On Monday,
January 19, 1987, he received a late night phone call from Laura Parker—VP at Island Pictures—that brought the somber news of Island deciding not to do the movie. “I couldn’t believe it. I’m awake, I thought, I’m not dreaming. This can’t be happening. Laura explained that she tried to talk to the group but it didn’t work. I thanked her, hung up the phone, turned over, and went to sleep, good night” (Lee 19). Showing “grace under fire”, Lee didn’t allow his project to be homeless for long. The next day, he made contacts at Columbia Pictures who agreed to do the movie. As a result, the production start date was only delayed by one week. Lee successfully secured financing and distribution for his second film.
Though many of Lee’s films have spawned controversy, School Daze was controversial for different reasons. The film details the Homecoming weekend of Mission College, a Historically Black College (HBCU) in the South. Initially, Lee was granted permission to film on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. This was an especially proud moment for Lee because he was a third generation graduate of Morehouse. However, the relationship between School Daze and Morehouse would not last long.
Lee began shooting School Daze in early 1987. Yet, after three weeks of shooting, Lee and his film were kicked off campus. The elders of the university were concerned with Morehouse’s public image and how Lee’s film would depict the HBCU. A
letter was disseminated from the board of directors that stated, “Morehouse does not want to be associated with the movie for what it might imply” (Bernotas 41). Notably, Morehouse president Hugh Morris Gloster did not approve of the casting of African American actor Joe Seneca as the Mission College president. He thought Seneca looked too much like a Sambo—the racist depiction of a lazy black man—to be a college president (Aftab 75). Not only would Lee have to pack up his production and leave campus, he also lost permission to use the three weeks worth of footage that was filmed at Morehouse. This would prove to be ironic as Lee would later be invited to become a member of Morehouse’s board of trustees. To complete the film, Lee would resume film production at nearby Atlanta University.
School Daze opens with a montage of photos that convey a concentrated version of African American history. After slavery, blacks could not attend white institutions, and therein lays the start of the Historically Black College. In the film, Lee wanted to address the color bias that exists within the black race on a black college campus. He wanted to convey the message that color prejudice is divisive and destructive (Haskins 49). Mission College represents a microcosm of black society. Lee states, “Light-skin blacks have historically done better in this society. I want to show that the vestiges of slavery are still with us in the way that we think” (Bernotas 40). The color bias within the black race dates back to the days of the antebellum South. During those times, the
fairer skinned slaves had better working conditions because they were allowed to work in the big house. Darker skinned slaves were assigned grueling back breaking field work. Though this separation still exists within the race, it is no longer disseminated from whites. It is now controlled and distributed by blacks among blacks as racism within the race. In regard to his replication of this process for School Daze, Lee stated:
For a lot of people it was their first time on a movie, let alone their first movie on location. On location you spend a lot of time together, because there’s nothing else to do-everybody goes back to the hotel. These were inexperienced actors. I didn’t want anybody to get too chummy. I thought that if there was a real-life friendship it would spill over onto the screen. (Aftab 85)
During film production, Lee did not want off-screen friendships to show up on film as he thought this would compromise the integrity of his work. He quickly devised a plan that would support his narrative. Lee separated his cast by complexion in the same manner that slave owners did. He gave the fairer skinned actors upscale accommodations that were closer to the set and gave the darker skinned actors meager accommodations that were distant. Shortly thereafter, resentment began to build among the darker skinned actors. They were upset that they were doing the same work as the fairer skinned set but did not receive the same treatment. The fairer skinned
actors began to feel a false sense of entitlement. Lee was creating the same behavior that his film condemned for the sake of its narrative and cinematography. It was how he would capture a “realistic” performance.
In School Daze, the Mission College students are color struck. The darker hued blacks are referred to as “jigaboos”. Jiggaboo is a derisive term often used by racist whites, but is also used by some blacks to refer to other blacks. In the film, the women jigaboos were called the Naturals. They wore the Afro hairstyle which is also commonly called a natural. The students of the fairer hue were referred to as “wannabes”. The male jigaboos were a group of campus radicals know as “Da Fellas”. Da Fellas are lead by Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne) and are depicted as having concern for Afro-centric issues such as calling for Mission College’s divestiture in Apartheid. They did not identify with, and looked down upon the wannabes. They saw them as being non-authentic blacks or “sell outs” of the African American race. The woman wannabes were ladies that comprised the Gamma Ray auxiliary to the male wannabe Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity. The women wannabes wore hair extensions, Eurocentric hairstyles such as the perm, and blue contact lenses.
The perm is commonly referred to by African Americans as “the process” because of the painstaking task that is straightening black hair. It is often seen by blacks as a way to assimilate into Eurocentric culture or to attempt to “pass” for white.
In the film, the men of Gamma Phi Gamma did not identify with the ideals of Da Fellas. Julian, (Giancarlo Esposito) a member of Gamma and chief “Black Greek” states, “We of Gamma Phi Gamma do not agree with your African Mumbo Jumbo” (qtd. in Patterson 81). They saw Da Fellas as being of lower class and confused about their place in society.
The conflict between the Da Fellas and the Gammas is a perplexing one. In the film, the men of Gamma Phi Gamma are wannabes, but are the most African men on campus as they are seen engaging in activities that can be traced back to Africa. These activities include: the oral tradition of call and response chants, stepping, and respectful recognition of the elders. However, they see themselves as Greeks and during the Homecoming parade, they are depicted as Egyptians. Da Fellas look at Africa from a political perspective, yet they do not display elements of the cultural aspect of Africa that are embraced by the Gammas. The two groups represent the conflicting perspectives within the African American community. By presenting this paradox, Spike Lee is addressing self-hatred and class within the African American Community.
The themes of self-hatred and class spill off campus early in the film. When Da Fellas venture to Kentucky Fried Chicken to partake in a meal, they run into a group of disgruntled locals, and the two factions almost descend to the level of fisticuffs. In the KFC dining area, the camera acts as an innocent bystander who is observing the
confrontation from a slightly elevated position over Grady’s—a member of Da Fellas—shoulder. This scene was shot on location at a real KFC as actual cars are seen outside in transit and authentic KFC products are featured on camera. Spike Lee states, “That scene at the KFC is all about class. The people who lived around the schools resented us, and a lot of people at the school looked down at the townies, thought that they were stupid. So there was actual antagonism” (Aftab 81). In the scene, the locals, who are lead by Samuel L. Jackson—costumed in out of date fashions and hairstyles to express that they were older and behind the times—quickly identify Da Fellas—outfitted in en vogue fashions as to express that they were congruent with the times—as Mission College students.
The hostility is further expressed by the long take featured in the clothesline staged confrontation scene. The locals chide Da Fellas for taking working opportunities from individuals who were born in the community and will remain there their whole lives. In this portion of the scene, the cuts are less frequent as the tension continues to build. The cuts that are featured in the confrontation scene lead to close-up shots where the passion of the argument is easily detected in the eyes of the participants. The locals charge Da Fellas with attempting to assimilate into Eurocentric culture and being homosexuals.
This accusation is unique because this is the same charge (sans the alternate lifestyle denouncement), Da Fellas levy upon Gamma Phi Gamma and the Gamma Rays. Da Fellas accuse the locals of behaving in an ignorant manner and chide them for their dress and lack of decorum. The locals exclaim, “You’re all niggers, and ya’ll gonna be niggers, just like us.” Dap Dunlap retorts, “You’re not Niggers” (Patterson 84). In this scene, we are privy to the self-hatred that exists within the black race and the division that is created in it by class. The uneducated black locals were defensive toward the young black Mission College men because they felt inferior. The Mission men saw the black locals as embarrassments of the black race due to their style of dress and juvenile behavior. They did not realize that they were the same. Unbeknownst to the two groups, they were inflicting hate on themselves.
Self-hatred and class is even more apparent in scenes that include the Jigs and Rays. Chief among them is the scene that depicts the Mission College Homecoming step show. In creating the scene, extras were moved around constantly so that the gym would look full on camera. There, the Gammas are all costumed in G Phi G Adidas paraphernalia and Da Fellas are costumed in 1950’s styled suits. This scene is the most fallacious scene in the movie as Adidas has never manufactured paraphernalia for Black Greek organizations and a group of non-Greeks would not be permitted to participate in a Greek step show. The inclusion of Da Fellas is intentional as Lee is aware of the
culture. In this scene, the most authentic aspect of the show is the lighting. True to form, Lee uses low lighting to replicate step show conditions. Here, the camera cuts are frequent due to the massive amount of editing that took place. During the Gamma performance, an ill-advised cheat cut is used that mismatches the position of the Gammas on stage. Also, in portions of the step performances, asynchronous sound is used as the audio is not consistent with the character’s lip movements.
Originally, the scene included the organizations of: Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi. After the editing, only the Alpha Phi Alpha performance remained. This continuity editing was used to maintain clear narrative action. The delays in filming the steps show scenes helped fuel existing animosity between the female actors. During the down time, the male jigs helped the females craft a chant that would be used on screen to address the female wannabes. The chant goes, “Your eyes are blue, but you ain’t white, your hair is straight, cause you pressed it last night.” To retaliate, The Rays crafted a “diss” chant of their own, “Who wants a Jigaboo? Why don’t you check the local zoo? ‘Cause we spent the other day at the local zoo. And they had a big, nappy beast and it looked like you. And we looked up at the cage; it said Jigaboo” (Lee 98). The ladies hated each other for their differences, which also meant that they hated themselves. As a result, the line that separates life and art was blurred.
Because of the animosity created by class, the actors were temporarily unable to distinguish themselves from their characters. Tisha Campbell-Martin (Jane Toussaint) claims, “There was one time when I honestly felt that I was this character. We were filming the Greek Show and I knew that I was she, and I began to hate the Gamma Rays, the Jigs, and hate myself” (Lee 92). Consequently, the pressure cooker that was the step show scene finally erupted. A “real” fight broke out amongst the actors. As pandemonium ensued, Lee made sure that the cameras were rolling. The fracas—in its entirety—was captured on film as Lee achieved the “realistic” performance that he desired.
To further achieve realism, Lee used cameras that were always moving via dolly or via crane. In School Daze, the camera is like a character itself, dancing around people (Lee 107). In much of the film, the camera gives the impression that it is a Mission College student. This is especially apparent at the Homecoming football game. At such an event, a spectator would have a hard time focusing on the action on the field. In this portion of the film, the mise-en-scene includes every possible sporting event image except the actual game. The viewing audience is able to interpret what is happening on the field from Coach Odom’s (Ossie Davis) reaction.
Also, Kodachrome—a fine-grained color side film—was used to express the warmth and brightness of the Afro-centric colors used in the film. Executive producer
Ernest Dickerson was charged with creating the look of the film. He remarks, “If this film was taking place at a white school, I’d probably used more subdued colors” (Lee 110). Along with the Afro-centric colors used, Dickerson incorporates a “blue” motif. He cites, “All of our nights in the film are blueish, which is a Hollywood standard, but we made them bluer than most” (Lee 111). As a result, hardly any white lighting is used in the film. Bastard amber gels were placed on lights to create a warming effect and dimmers were used frequently. In regard to this aspect of cinematography, Dickerson imparts, “As you dim the lights down, they get warmer in color tempeture. I like the way warmer lights on black skin tones” (Lee 110). In regard to the varying skin tones of the female characters, black stockings were used in front of lenses to compensate for the on-screen differences in complexion.
The shots selected also helped express realism. Like the script, Lee’s shot list was left open. He comments, “We wanted to be open. For some scenes you want to see what the blocking is going to be like, you want to look things over with your director of photography. I don’t want to come on the set all the time with a predetermined idea of what we’re gonna shoot. There’s no spontaneity to that” (Lee 111). Also, to help convey the conflicts on campus, there is a motif of two characters in profile. Here, profile shots were used with opposing characters constantly facing each
other. This technique is used in the KFC scene, the Homecoming parade, and the “Straight and Nappy” musical number.
As a film student, Lee dreamed of directing a musical. To prepare for School Daze, he spent hours watching old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals as well as West Side Story (1961), Lee’s favorite musical of all time (Haskins 44). Like his next film Do The Right Thing (1989), Lee would incorporate bright colors and intense lighting to bring the film’s musical acts to life. One of the more memorable acts takes place in Madame Re-Re’s Hair Salon—an elaborate salon set complete with hair dryers, chairs, wigs and an assortment of mirrors—where the theme of self-hatred was highlighted. There, the members of the Jigs and the Rays do musical battle in the “Straight and Nappy” sequence.
In regard to costuming, Lee outfitted the respective factions in hockey jerseys that were layered over spandex tights. The Rays wore silver and black while the Jigs wore navy and red. The most noticeable attribute of the costuming—besides seeing attractive women dance and prance around in tights—is the fact that the Jigs wear jerseys with a lowercase “j” and the Rays wear jerseys that feature a capital “W”. This no doubt, reinforces the statement Lee is making about intra-race discrimination. Here, the Rays are capital and the Jigs are lowercase, reflecting there place within the African American community.
Fans of West Side Story can see the musical’s influence in this number. Here, the Kodachrome film gives the number a retro appeal that imbues film nostalgia. The song and dance number features the song, “Good and Bad Hair”. In the scene, the viewer can detect Lee’s use of shot/reverse shot to help convey the tension that exists between the two groups. In comparison to the rest of the film, the takes for the musical are longer and the editing is slower as the ladies have longer lines and the lyrics to the song are emphasized. Synchronous sound is used to match dialogue to lip movements as the physical requirement of the dance number does not make for clear recitation. In this scene, characters are staged clothesline fashion, and wide shots are used to fit as many on-screen as possible. To express the essence of a realistic performance, the camera acts as an interested character with a masculine gaze. To capture the action, it pans left and right to focus on each faction equally. At the end of the scene, a crane shot is used to properly frame the ladies and to provide closure to the surreal musical.
Lee used the musical number to help reinforce his point that blacks were inflicting reflexive harm. Hair—for years—has been an issue within the African American community. There are African Americans who look down on other African Americans for their choice in hair styles. In essence, these individuals are hating themselves. If the race was to be uplifted, African Americans needed to “wake up” and realize petty squabbles are detrimental to the advancement of the race.
As an auteur, Spike Lee employs a lassiez-fair attitude in regard to his directing. He allows his actors ownership stake in their characters, many times, refraining from correcting, or instructing them. His scripts are open to his talents’ interpretations and they are encouraged to ad-lib lines. There are actors who are comfortable with this style and actors who are not. During the filming of School Daze, Laurence Fishburne took exception to Lee’s laid back style. During the first day of filming, Fishburne requested a second take of a scene and was refused. Lee stated, “You can’t hit a home run every time” (Aftab 82). Angered by the refusal, Fishburne rebelled by referring to Lee as “coach” for the rest of the shoot. Consequently, Fishburne did not realize that Lee—an avid sports fan—would take this as a compliment.
In regard to Lee, Fishburne told Stuart Mieher of the New York Times Magazine, “Spike really doesn’t communicate verbally with the actors a lot. I’ll look at him like I’m wondering, ‘Hey, am I doing O.K.?’ and he nods.” He added, “I don’t think he’s developed all the skills he might need to communicate with actors” (Haskins 49). Giancarlo Esposito refutes that Lee’s directing style was hands off but that the script was indeed loosely written to allow for improvisation. He states:
Spike’s response to any comments is that he listens, and thinks that they’re valid he will give you respect. But it would be a hard thing to get him to change his mind. Spike is his own man. We had a scene where
Larry and I are on the quad. I hated my lines so I reworked them, and told Larry, ‘I’ll say it on camera and you respond.’ We did an electric scene. Spike was on a ladder with a bullhorn. We finished, and everybody knew that we’d change the lines because there was complete silence. He screamed, ‘What did you say?’ Larry and I didn’t answer. Spike said, ‘Whatever you said, and whatever Larry said, do it again, just like that!’ And that was his stamp of approval. (Aftab 82)
It appears that a director’s directing style is comparable to a teacher’s teaching style and classroom management. There are individuals who flourish under the hands off approach, and those who are alienated by such. We can make inferences as to which actors embraced Lee’s directing practices as actors such as Giancarlo Esposito have appeared in multiple Lee productions. Actors such as Laurence Fishburne have not.
Laurence Fishburne’s character Dap Dunlap serves as the film’s true protagonist. Dap serves as the voice of reason for his little cousin Half-Pint (Spike Lee), a pledge of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity. School Daze’s fabula refers to Dap’s previous assistance in helping Half-Pint survive the pledging process and that Dap previously pledged Gamma before “dropping line.” Dropping line refers to an individual who starts a pledging process but quits before the process is completed. Within the Greek
community, individuals who drop line are treated with disdain and are viewed as social pariahs. As a result, Dap’s opinion of Black Greeks sours. He even holds his girlfriend Rachel in contempt when she reveals she wants to pledge Delta Sigma Theta. To Dap, pledging is a trait of the wannabe. Again, this is ironic as Dap once wanted to be a Gamma man.
It is only after the threat of a breakup does Dap soften his views on Rachel’s desire to pledge. Throughout the film, Dap antagonizes Gamma and Mission College’s administration with his political propaganda. Dap wants Mission College to divest from supporting Apartheid in South Africa. He establishes shanty towns on the university quad to raise awareness of the issue. When Dap instigates a fight with the Gammas at the Homecoming game, he is brought before President McPherson. McPherson threatens Dap with expulsion if he continues to interfere with the education of the Mission College student body. This slows Dap’s progress, but shortly thereafter, he chooses to continue to wage his personal battles with Julian and the Gammas.
Giancarlo Esposito’s character Julian, serves as a foil to Dap Dunlap. Julian is the president and Dean of Pledges of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity. There is animosity between Julian and Dap because Dap previously attempted to pledge Gamma but quit. Julian is the chief Black Greek on campus and is revered by members of his organization and the student body. When Julian discovers that pledge Half-Pint is a
virgin, he becomes obsessed with him having sex before becoming a Gamma man. When Julian decides to break up with his girlfriend—Gamma Ray Jane Toussaint—he creates a plan that will serve both purposes. Julian tricks Jane into having sex with Half- Pint. When she does, he uses it as an excuse for their break up. At the film’s climax, Julian is seen in bed with Gamma Ray Dina (Jasmine Guy). Filled with patriarchal and chauvinistic qualities, Julian is Lee’s most detestable character in the film.
In each Spike Lee film, there is a baseball motif. In School Daze, Spike Lee’s character Half-Pint’s real name is Darryl, a reference to New York Met right-fielder Darryl Strawberry. In Lee’s next film, Do The Right Thing, he continued this motif by naming his protagonist “Mookie”, a reference to New York Met center-fielder Mookie Wilson. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Lee becomes an attraction in his films. In School Daze, he did not want to steal scenes and create a cultural icon as he did in She’s Gotta Have It with “Mars Blackmon”. Consequently, Half-Pint appears in fewer movie scenes.
Half-Pint is obsessed with becoming a Gamma man. To achieve this goal, he subjects himself to humiliating tasks to prove his worth to the organization. These tasks include: attempting to sleep with random co-eds, walking on all fours and barking like a dog, and sleeping with Julian’s girlfriend Jane Toussaint, in an effort to lose his virginity. In the film’s climax, Half-Pint runs to Dap’s dorm room at five am to tell him that he’s no longer a virgin. In this scene, an extreme close up of Half-Pint is shot to convey a
sense of urgency. When Dap discovers Julian has prostituted his own girlfriend, he becomes angry with Half-Pint and triggers the film’s surreal ending. During the “Wake Up” scene, Half-Pint is seen standing next to Jane.
Tisha Campbell-Martin’s character Jane Toussaint is the 18 year old girlfriend of Julian who devotes herself totally to Juilan and the Gamma organizations. Jane paints her finger and toe nails in the fraternity colors and wears them (black and silver) throughout the film. Julian grows tired of Jane’s immature ways and suspects her of being in love with Gamma instead of him. To test his theory, he asks Jane to have sex with Half-Pint. Reluctantly, Jane sleeps with Half-Pint and is subsequently dumped by Julian. In the film, Jane wears hair extensions, blue contacts and is confrontational toward the darker hued women on campus.
Kyme’s character Rachel is the chief Natural and girlfriend of Dap Dunlap. Rachel accuses Dap of self-hatred and thinks that he is with her only because she fits his “all the way down” pro-black image. When Rachel tells Dap that she wants to pledge Delta Sigma Theta, he becomes extremely upset with her as he associates it with being a wannabe. When Rachel threatens to break up with Dap, he sees the error of his ways and gives her his approval.
In order to further interpret race in School Daze, one must engage in a closer examination of the female characters. Jane, Dina, and Rachel are all objectified and
dominated by their male counterparts. Jane and Dina are viewed as chattel by their male Gamma counterparts and are passed around the fraternity like Greek paraphernalia. They have no voice or say in their relationships with men and are depicted as lusty women who are readily available for dorm room sexual encounters.
However, Rachel is depicted in a different manner. Unlike Jane and Dina, Rachel has a voice and is adamant when expressing her desires and wishes. Though oppressed by her boyfriend Dap, she moves with freedom and often serves as Dap Dunlap’s voice of reason. Yet, it is only after Dap takes a “time out” from the shanty town—that he establishes on campus—to make love to Rachel does she inform him that she aspires to become a wannabe by joining Delta Sigma Theta (Diawara 168). Film critic bell hooks [sic] addresses the role of women in Spike Lee films. She states, “Lee can give us progressive cinematic messages about race but reactionary visions of gender” (hooks 26). In this film, race and class take precedence over sex as the women of Mission College are depicted as second class citizens.
Some naysayers criticized Lee’s portrayal of women in School Daze, saying he failed to develop his female characters as they are just symbols of patriarchal desire. Lee responded by citing that he hired a multitude of women to work behind the scenes, including the executive producer, the coproducer-attorney, the production coordinator, the second assistant director, the costume designer, the casting director, and the unit
publicist. He felt all the proof he needed to prove how he felt about women could be derived from his hiring practices.
School Daze’s narrative is clear until the viewer considers the musical numbers and the film’s climax. At these points, the flow of the movie is disrupted, which left Spike Lee fans disgruntled. At the film’s release, movie-goers fully expected to see a movie depicting life on a black college campus and did not anticipate elements of a musical. Roger Ebert, film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times called Lee’s use of musical sequences “an inspiration” and praised him for confronting “issues that aren’t talked about in the movies these days” (Bernotas 43). However, among the casual observer, his inclusion of musical sequences made for a lukewarm reaction in regard to the film’s criticism.
The problematic song and dance number that took place in the fictional Madame Re-Re’s Beauty Salon was choreographed by Otis Sallid and the score was provided by Lee’s father, Bill Lee. In an effort to make “Straight and Nappy” successful, Lee consulted with his father on the lyrics of “Good and Bad Hair”. Lee states, “There are a couple of lines in the song that he actually asked for my input on. I suggested the word “kitchen” in the lyrics, and the line, ‘Look who’s getting new today,’ both of which he hadn’t heard before” (Lee 143). The number became the biggest scene in the film and
was accompanied by a 50 piece orchestra as Lee put a plethora of planning and research into the number.
Lee mentions, “Straight and Nappy is my favorite number. I love Be Alone Tonight, but I think Straight and Nappy is more cinematic” (Lee 145). In one shot/reverse shot exchange, the wannabes are seen hiding behind Vivian Lee fans and the jigaboos are wielding Hattie McDaniel fans, both characters from Gone With The Wind. Again, the shot/reverse shot featured here is of medium long distance to feature each member. This proves problematic in viewing the Vivian Lee mask as many viewers were forced to use context to decipher the mask’s identity. Despite a herculean effort and bountiful resources, “Straight and Nappy” would not be embraced by fickle movie-goers and critics who were not prepared for its inclusion in the film.
Even with lukewarm criticism and controversy, movie-goers still turned out to see the movie as School Daze became a box-office hit by profiting double what it cost to produce. The film grossed $5 million in its first two weeks and eventually earned three times its original budget. School Daze became Columbia Pictures’ most profitable film of 1988 with little advertising support (Bernotas 44). Lee proved again that he was a profitable director who had his finger on the pulse of the black consumer and movie-goer.
However, the muddiest point for viewers would be the film’s climax, even though it provides a positive message. The film’s protagonist, Dap Dunlap runs out to the university quad, rings a large bell, and calls the Mission College students and faculty out of bed. Each character is seen wearing night wear with perplexing but relaxed facial expressions. Dap—in a motif that would appear in future Spike Lee films—is filmed framed on a camera dolly, to create the effect of being suspended in mid air. Also, the number of frames exposed per second is altered to create a slow motion effect. Once the student body assembles on the quad, Julian walks up to Dap and they both turn toward the camera and break the fourth wall by addressing viewers. Dap beseeches us to, “Please, wake up.” The cuts are frequent in this scene and close-ups of Dap and Julian are used to help convey the severity of the message. In this scene—for the first time in the film—the Gamma Rays are seen without their blue contacts and hair extensions.
Many viewers were ill-prepared for this surreal ending. Why are Dap and Julian standing together? Is Half-Pint now with Jane? Will Mission College divest from support of Apartheid? To them, the narrative was ruined as this scene was incongruous with the rest of the movie. Again, Lee’s intended message was directed toward blacks—young college blacks in particular—to stop walking around in a “daze” and wake up to the
prospect of unity within the African American race. However, School Daze’s conclusion sent this message over the collective heads of viewers.
In conclusion, Spike Lee’s School Daze is a film that contains elements of a musical, a drama, and a comedy rolled into one film. It’s a problematic effort because its aims—to uplift the race—get lost in the mire of its murky narrative. Lee alienates a portion of his audience by addressing once unmentionable issues within the African American community such as self-hate, intra-race discrimination, and class. At the same time, he highlights the benefits of college to individuals who were once unaware of the option of higher education. Despite critical mauling and the threat of loss of funding, Spike Lee created a narrative of the historically black college experience that if nothing else, cemented his reputation as a tough skinned director who was willing to take risks in expressing his ideals. In this instance, it was the critiquing of African Americans for the betterment of African Americans.
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