- School Daze does feel like a half step back from She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee’s debut in 1986). Lee’s second film has no shortage of ideas though, it is an ambitious work, and undoubtedly auteur cinema.
- It is set on a HBCU (Historically Black College) campus. Lee, who often starts or ends his films with documentary footage (Malcolm X, BlacKkKlansman) starts with a montage of black heroes immortalized in black and white photographs.
- It opens on Friday- the story of the homecoming weekend at the college. Lee’s film takes more swings than it lands. It is full of shifting tones and varying styles of music (some of it needle drop famous songs, a handful of musical numbers, some from his father Bill Lee who does the score).
- It is a film about being divided, specifically the colorism (light vs. dark skin), arguing over issues, the frat brothers- the Gammas (led by Giancarlo Esposito) vs. Laurence Fishburne and his politically minded group of followers (and even they have a divide within that divide). And even when this group goes on a break to get lunch at KFC there is a divide between the college kids and the local men (led by Samuel L. Jackson). Fishburne’s Dap Dunlap is speaking out against the college for not supporting the fight against Apartheid.
- Lee’s camera often walks down a line capturing the faces of the large ensemble of actors standing in a row. First, they are listening to Fishburne’s speech (this is how the film opens after the photograph montage), then later among the frat pledges (including Spike himself) as Esposito insults them (like R. Lee Ermey did the year before in Full Metal Jacket).
- The first real musical number is 24-minutes into the film- “Straight and Nappy”- a big number set in Madame Re-Re’s Beauty Salon—again this film is about the divide.
- The tonal shifts are the problem- there is sex scene between Julian (Esposito) and Jayne (Tisha Campbell), then shortly after there is a political argument, then after that there is a comic sketch football speech by the coach played by Ossie Davis (in his only scene). You wouldn’t want to hamper the creativity or muffle Lee’s powerful message; it just needs some sort of form and a few of his instincts betray him (the wipe edits with the Mission pennant).
- Spike’s talent for spectacular visuals is given time to shine. During the moody “Be One” song he uses a red light to filter the screen. There are sumptuous blues pouring in the window when Esposito’s Julian breaks up with Jayne. The most brilliant sequence in School Daze is easily the final sequence. The famous “Wake Up” scene. Fishburne starts from a long distance and by the end of the shot he is in an extreme closeup. The camera moves and sort of floats behind Fishburne in the next shot, and then there is what appears to be a double dolly shot directly following that. Lee uses a gorgeous yellow filter (the sun is rising; people are literally waking up) to capture all of this.. If there was any doubt the film was worthy of the archives before this scene, that doubt was put to rest. “Wake Up!” will be one of Lee’s calling cards moving forward and he opens his next film- Do the Right Thing with this (and the social consciousness connected to the statement). It exciting to see his youthful energy here (even if flawed in some of the organization of it and it does feel rough drafty at times). Also, many from his cast and crew here are getting ready for his masterpiece the following year. School Daze features his father’s music as I mentioned, Ernest Dickerson’s photography, Wynn Thomas’s production design, and from the cast there is Esposito, Ossie Davis, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith and Samuel L. Jackson.
- Recommend but not in the top 10 of 1988
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