School Daze

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Our rating: two lava lamps.

Information about this film in the Internet Movie Database.

Esposito & Fishburne as Julian & Dap.
Neither one of us has attended an all-black university, but we came away from School Daze feeling as if we'd graduated from Mission College. Spike Lee's underbudgeted (and to hear him tell it, underpromoted) film about undergraduate life at a prominent black school is an immersive experience, if not an altogether pleasant one.

School Daze primarily chronicles the lives of two black men on the Mission campus. Dap (Larry Fishburne), a smart, outspoken campus leader, appears at the start of the film, railing against the fact that the school's major financial contributors own holdings in South Africa. His cousin, Half-Pint (played by Lee), just wants to join the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity because "a Gamma Man is a real man!" Pledging to Gamma means becoming a Gammite. Gammites dress in silver sweatsuits, leash collars, and combat boots and spend lots of time barking like dogs. (Whatever floats yer boat, that's our motto.)

Making life hell for Half-Pint and his fellow Gammites are the Gamma Men, who really know how to relieve stress (their own) by abusing the Gammites. The Gamma Men are led by Julian, a sadistic, manipulative bastard and a former friend of Dap's. Dap disapproves of fraternities in general, but tries to put in a good word for Half-Pint.

Also bringing joy into the lives of audience members are the Gamma Rays, the sorority sisters who apparently live to serve the Gamma Men, and their non-affiliated opposite numbers in the dorms, scornfully referred to as the Jigaboos. The tension between the two groups highlights the division between groups of blacks -- the darker, kinkier-haired Jigaboos, and the lighter-skinned "Wannabe-White" Gamma Rays, with straight hair.

To be frank, School Daze is a much more serious film than its dialogue usually lets on. Between the insults, posturing, and funky nicknames ("Yes, Dean Big Brother Al-migh-TEE!"), there's an undercurrent of cruelty and hate. Lee once wrote that he didn't think of School Daze as a comedy, as the film was apparently labeled, but we're surprised that anyone could mistake it as such in the first place. There are funny lines, but the things the characters do and say keep it far from the realm of the lighthearted.

A tearful Tisha Campbell and a bald Spike Lee.
It's not much of a musical, either. The only moment at which the music actually forwards the plot or reveals character traits is in the Jigaboo/Wannabe scene; the rest is just inserted MTV fodder. We also found it a bit silly that so many of these college students were able to throw together intensely choreographed dance skits for Homecoming at the last moment.

School Daze feels like a warmup for Lee -- he wants to say something, but can't quite manage to say it. Plot lines are left to hang, characters disappear, and the ending, while visually powerful, does nothing to resolve any of the conflicts between the people and ideas in the film. Contrast this to Lee's next film, Do The Right Thing, where all the tensions in the film resolve explosively and simultaneously.

Fortunately, the film shines in its character development. If nothing else, we at least know the people whose lives we've been watching, and we do care about them. These characters have real feelings and motivations -- it's just a shame that we don't get to see where those feelings lead them.

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Review date: 9/10/97

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