Deconstruction: Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” 25 Years Later
Before Laurence Fishburne was ever Morpheus, much less Furious Styles. Before Buggin’ Out got up in arms about there being no Black people on the wall or, later, got up in arms about a certain filmmaker’s spaghetti Western set in the time of slavery. Before Samuel L. Jackson ever became Jules or proclaimed “Yes, they deserve to die, and I hope they burn in hell!” Before Gina from Martin was Gina from Martin. Before all this… a little-known filmmaker by the name of Spike Lee would utilize them all in his second film in 1988, entitled School Daze.
Back in the ’80s, what Spike Lee was attempting to do for Black filmmakers and Black films in general, was unprecedented – the self-proclaimed “Spike Lee Joints” were maybe three or four characters away from having all-Black casts. They balanced “statement pieces” with memorable characters and the occasional laugh. In 1988, when School Daze first made its way into theatres, it was an entirely new experience on the big screen. Spike Lee welcomed viewers from all backgrounds onto the campus of a historically Black college and university (HBCU) – literally, onto the campuses of Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown, Morehouse, and Spelman Colleges – and invited them to participate in conversations that were relevant to the Black community back then. Spike didn’t just slide in subtle hints into the script about issues like the identity crisis amongst African-Americans in the post-Civil Rights generation and the United States’ relationship with still-Apartheid-driven South Africa; he confronted them head on through his characters.
I would first get introduced to School Daze in 1999, as an eighth-grader still trying to figure out what to do with my life. Of course, the early hints to “go to college” had begun rearing their head, and while it wasn’t like I never intended to go to college period, I’d be lying if I said School Daze didn’t raise my enthusiasm to go on to higher education. The characters were so great. Fishburne, cast as the protagonist Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap was a “pro-Black” type in the late 80s, when concepts like “Black nationalism” and the “Black is Beautiful” pride movement were either turning into something else or fizzling out entirely. A stoic figure in his high-top fade and black leather jacket with the African flag patches. I loved Dap as a character because of what he embodied, someone devoting himself to a cause. And just like most Black leaders, Dap had his moments of contradiction, such as when he wasn’t a fan of his dark-skinned girlfriend joining a sorority.
Giancarlo Esposito’s character, Julian Eaves, was also relatable. The president of an on-campus fraternity – the fictional Gamma Phi Gamma – Julian was cocky and pretentious, yet there was something about his character that made you gravitate towards him. Tisha Campbell (before the Martin) and
Whitley Gilbert Jasmine Guy were part of the Gamma Rays, the “affiliate” organization to Gamma Phi Gamma, the complete membership of whom were all light-skinned Black women. Of course, there was Spike Lee himself as Half-Pint, Dap’s younger cousin and an aspiring “Gamma Man” with oversized glasses. Other recognizable names and faces could be found amongst the School Daze cast, though they would get their due shine in later time, such as Ozzie Davis (as the coach of Mission College’s football team), Roger Guenvere Smith, and Dwayne and Ron *cough* I mean, Kadeem Hardison and Little Morris Day Darryl M. Bell. Oh, and we saw Samuel L. Jackson continue to build on the road he’d started in Coming to America as becoming the angriest Black man in America with a fondness for the words “motherf-cker” and “b-tch.”
For me personally, School Daze made me strongly consider attending an HBCU for my higher education. In spite of what critics of the time may say, Spike Lee depicted the historically Black college as a place where I – as a person of color – would be welcome and find people I could relate to and things I could be a part of. It raised my awareness of historically Black fraternities and sororities, hinting to nonexistent things like a “pledge process” and a “death march” (in one scene in particular, at a stepshow, members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incs., can all be spotted in the crowd). School Daze was as much about pride as it was about critique, from the homecoming parade and the ensuing homecoming game – at which the Black bands had a jam session; and culture pulsed through the film from start to finish. While I would not end up not attending a HBCU, I would maintain my fondness (and, to a degree, a slight longing for) the “Black college experience.”
25 years later, School Daze lives on in references. The film Stomp The Yard almost certainly borrowed its fictional campus name of “Truth University” from Mission College. Morris Brown College, highlighted in School Daze, would get still more of the spotlight over a decade later in the film Drumline. In one of the more memorable episodes of the TV show, A Different World, Hardison and Bell do try to “pledge” a fraternity. No doubt Jaleel White’s lowly Steve Urkel character, with the low-hanging shoulders oversized glasses, borrowed much of his look from Half-Pint. The School Daze Soundtrack, bearing the likes of E.U., Phyllis Hyman, and a Keith John cover of a Stevie Wonder track, STILL gets rotation. And Dap’s famous shout towards the end of the film, “Wake Up!” is still often quoted.
But School Daze also remains relevant because of the conversations it raised. One of the film’s most memorable sequences is a dance number between “the Wannabes and the Jiggaboos.” Though entertaining, it broaches a real conversation about the divide between those who are light-skinned, get perms, etc. and those who are dark-skinned and wear their hair natural. These days, the traits aren’t so mutually exclusive, but the debates persist. You’ve seen the hashtags on Twitter that read #teamlightskin. You’ve seen the comments about Black stars – like Beyonce’, for example – seeming to pay homage to white, fair-skinned women in their poses and outfits. Sometimes they’re just jokes; but every joke bears a little bit of true feeling. The conversation that happens between Samuel L. Jackson and Dap’s crew outside the chicken joint is also still fitting today. Amidst Jackson’s wisecracking, there were two underlying narratives going on: one discussing the stereotype that one could not be Black and educated; and another one regarding the generational gap between the old and the young. Both conversations still persist today and neither can really be so easily laughed off.
Enough about my nostalgia. What do YOU remember from School Daze? And if you don’t remember School Daze, you’re too young for me, bro, today’s a good time to get acquainted with it.