Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dazed and Confused

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

If a fly should land on your head,
Then I’m sure he’d break all his legs.
Cuz you got so much grease up there!
Dear is that a weave that you wear?

Time for another plug for our sponsor for 2011’s Black History Mumf, Weave(TM). Weave is a co-star of today’s movie, School Daze. It gets a visual shout-out atop the heads of actresses Tisha Campbell, Tyra Ferrell, Jasmine Guy and others. Our sponsor is verbally given its due in song, a verse of which appears above.

Spike Lee’s second joint, released in 1988, tackles two topics I had never seen before in a film: the “colorstruck” war between light and dark skinned Blacks, and the campus of a historically Black college. Released in February, 1988 with little fanfare by Columbia Pictures (the only film Lee did for them), School Daze became both a Black cult sensation and a goldmine of casting for the Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World. According to Lee’s DVD commentary, Daze’s casting director, Robi Reed, was also the casting director for A Different World. This explains why Jasmine Guy, Kadeem Hardison, Darryl M. Bell and others from this film wound up on NBC before School Daze hit screens.  School Daze was shot in the spring of 1987, and A Different World debuted in the fall.

Had it not been for She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s debut feature, School Daze would never have been made. It garnered critical acclaim, cost $175,000 to make and grossed $8 million dollars. Telling the tale of a woman who liked sex and was (as is typical of American cinema) ultimately punished for it, She’s Gotta Have It is notable for introducing Nike ads to Mars Blackmon. I was not enamored of She’s Gotta Have It, though I cop to giving it a higher (though still negative) rating than it deserved simply because the amount of Black sex depicted onscreen was plentiful, welcome and, most importantly, unheard of back then. With the credentials of an indie hit under his belt, Lee made the leap to a much bigger picture, with loads of extras and production values far surpassing She’s Gotta Have It.  What resulted is a gorgeous looking hot mess of a movie.

School Daze takes place during homecoming weekend at a historically Black college. I was educated by the Jesuits, who are far more boring than anything you’d find at Tuskegee University, so I defer to Lee’s knowledge of this environment. Lee, like several of his collaborators in front of and behind the camera, went to a historically Black institute of Higher Learning. Coincidentally, Higher Learning is John Singleton’s third feature which, like School Daze, takes place on a college campus, is a Columbia picture and an even bigger hot mess. But I digress. School Daze tries to cram two vast storylines and a musical into 2 hours, and things get beyond the director’s control. Watching School Daze again today, I realized it’s not as overtaxed as I remembered—for Lee’s first stab at a “big” movie it does numerous things quite well. But its mistakes are a harbinger; I’ve said before that director Spike Lee’s biggest enemy is often a writer named Spike Lee. School Daze proves that point more than once.

I disagree with the notion that School Daze was the misstep that occurred between Lee’s debut and his masterpiece, Do The Right Thing. In fact, School Daze is, in my opinion, Lee’s most important movie. That it is ultimately botched is almost beside the point; my critical brain deems it a fascinating failure, but the ghetto denizen-slash-film lover in me looks at this film’s subject matter in awe. Nobody made movies about Black universities in 1987, and while there were plenty of movies that told us how to deal with the White man, there weren’t any telling us how to deal with ourselves and our superficial hang-ups about fellow Blacks. To throw this up on the screen, with movie-movie glamour, and to wrap it in the confines of a musical—a genre that had fallen out of vogue, took balls as big as church bells. Nothing I critically say about School Daze changes that feat, and I commend Lee for getting this film made.

Spike Lee may be the only director working today who cares about opening credits. Starting with School Daze, Lee has crafted memorable opening credits sequences that set the tone for the film to come. Rosie Perez dancing in Do the Right Thing is perhaps the most famous, though my favorite Lee credits sequence remains Crooklyn’s street games. School Daze’s credits, my second favorite, take us through a pictorial history of Black people in America, scored to an old Negro spiritual by the Morehouse College Glee Club. The sequence starts with slave ships and travels through photos of MLK, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali, Stokely Carmichael and others. Foreshadowing Lee’s career flirtation with provocation, the director’s credit is superimposed over the last picture, the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of a Black man being stabbed with a flagpole. 

The standard gallery of Spike Lee players, behind and in front of the camera, are here. We see Roger Guenveur Smith, Ossie Davis, Samuel Yell Jackson, Spike’s sister Joie, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Nunn. Behind the camera are production designer Wynn Thomas, editor Barry Alexander Brown, costume designer Ruth E. Carter (here miscredited), Lee’s dad Bill on the music, and of course, Ernest Dickerson on cin-tog. The biggest contributors to School Daze are Dickerson and Bill Lee, who in 6 minutes and with help from choreographer Otis Sallid, gives his son a lesson on how to get the point across without belaboring it. More on that later. Lee also gives us the first look at the people mover trademark that  he would overdo to the point of parody later. It’s brief, but the subject of it is Eve’s Bayou director, Kasi Lemmons.  

It’s Homecoming Weekend at Mission College, established in 1883 as a Black college in Georgia.  Anyone who has attended a Black college homecoming knows the routine, what he or she will see and do. School Daze captures this completely and with an accuracy that pissed off some of the fraternities and sororities Lee parodies with his fictional Gamma Phi Gamma frat. I had never been to a homecoming when I saw School Daze in theaters, so this was my first exposure to such a thing. I was a 17 year old  college sophomore on February 12, 1988 when this movie opened, and had my parents not needed a historically Black babysitter for their four historically Black bad ass kids, I could have gone to Howard or Fisk instead of having to stay local. (Do I sound bitter? Good.)

Lee presents two sides of the college experience. School Daze splits its time between an activist named Vaughn “Dap” Dunlop (Ike Turner himself, Laurence Fishburne) out to protest until the college stops dealing with apartheid era South Africa, and his cousin Darryl “Half-Pint” Dunlop (Spike Lee) who is pledging Gamma Phi Gamma. Dap hates the fraternity lifestyle, though one wonders if the genesis of that hatred lay in a throwaway line about how he dropped out of Gamma’s pledging during his freshman year. Dap’s girlfriend, Rachel (Kyme), accurately thinks his dislike of the Gammas is due to its preponderance of light-skinned Blacks over dark skinned ones.  Rachel has her own problems with the Gammas—they’re snobbish and think they’re better because they are lighter skinned and have processed hair and/or our sponsor, Weave(TM). Rachel and her galpals tend to be darker skinned, and have the natural, kinky, and—yeah I’ma say it—NAPPY hair that came with their (and my) original packaging. Some of the Gammas even wear blue contact lenses, a feature that got Spike Lee in an argument with Whoopi Goldberg back in the day.

The two sides clash early. Dap and his protestor pals (Kadeem “Dwayne Wayne” Hardison, musician Branford Marsalis, Bill “Radio Raheem” Nunn and Def By Temptation director/star James Bond III) are leading a protest in front of the school when Julian (aka Dean Big Brother ALL-mi-TEE) and his Gammite pledges barge into the middle of it. Julian’s pledges include Roger Guenveur Smith and Lee’s Half-Pint; his frat brothers include director Rusty Cundieff and Darryl M. Bell. The student body president diffuses the situation, but it’s clear that the school is on the fraternity’s side. The constant protesting by Dap and his ilk is pissing off the college’s investors.

Julian, I mean Dean Big Brother All-mi-TEE, loves aggravating the shit out of Dap, so he and the frat try to interrupt their protests as much as possible. As played by Lee regular Giancarlo Esposito, Julian is, depending on your stance, cool as fuck or the movie’s hissable villain. The director sees him as the latter, and takes great pains to depict actual hazing rituals he learned from his fraternity advisor, Zelmar Bothic. Bothic was a classmate of Lee’s at Morehouse, and was the sole member on his fraternity’s line come homecoming weekend. Bothic shared a class with Lee, and couldn’t sit down because of the hemorrhoids he obtained from all the paddle ass whippings he took from the frat brothers during his pledge.

Half-Pint and his fellow Gammites take a lot of abuse from Dean Big Brother All-Mi-TEE and his minions, each of which has a name the Gammites must not only say but also perform some kind of synchronized motion when they say it. Half-Pint is so brainwashed that when he talks to Dap, every time Dap refers to Julian as “Julian,” Half-Pint corrects him by compulsively saying “Dean (Clap!) Big Brother All-mi-TEE!”  Julian (I’m sick of typing all that big brother shit) is especially vicious to Half-Pint, presumably because he’s Dap’s cousin but also because Julian pegs him (correctly) as a virgin. Seeing Lee cast himself as a nerdy, immature, pipsqueak virgin is inspired. He does look young enough to be one of these guys, but it had to put Esposito in a bad position when he had to take direction from his victim.

Dap has Rachel as his main squeeze, and Julian has Jane Toussaint (Tisha Campbell), the head of the Gamma Phi Gamma sorority. Their gang sign is a “MEOW!” followed by a G in the air with a snap. You’ll be doing it before the movie’s over. The Gamma Girls are treated like meat, made to pay for the Gammites’ going over party as well as clean the rooms of their frat brother counterparts. Jasmine “Whitley Gilbert” Guy is one of the Gamma Girls along with Campbell.  She’ll eventually replace Jane as Julian’s main squeeze after Julian plays a sickeningly cruel trick on Jane late in the film.

When I first saw School Daze, I found the frat scenes a lot more annoying than I did today. For some reason, I used to read the film as endorsing (for the most part) the fraternity’s activities. This time, I had a clearer view of Lee’s intentions, yet I still think they go on way too long for my taste.  I was more interested in Dap and his story, which the film doesn’t shortchange but certainly spends less time on than the frathouse shenanigans. I understand that School Daze is supposed to be a microcosm of Black society, but Lee dwells too long on the superficial things and leaves the most interesting and controversial aspects behind. It’s just too much ground to cover; I wish Lee has chosen to either make the film longer or ditch some of the frat scenes.

One thing I’m glad Lee didn’t ditch is the music. Since 1988, I have gone through 2 cassette tapes and 3 CD’s of the School Daze Soundtrack, which has been out of print for a while (so I’d better hold on to this copy). This may be my favorite soundtrack of all time, besting Shaft and Superfly, and dare I say it, Saturday Night Fever. Jasmine Guy, Kyme, and Tisha Campbell all contribute, as well as the late, great Phyllis Hyman. Her performance of Bill Lee’s Be One is given the beauty and weight it deserves by Dickerson, a dress rehearsal for his lensing of Cynda Williams’ Harlem Blues number in Mo’ Better Blues. EU shows up late in the film to sing their go-go classic, Da Butt, the biggest hit from the School Daze soundtrack (and the reason Black folks went to see the film, which as aforementioned, got no promotion from Columbia). But the real star of the School Daze soundtrack is Bill Lee.

Schooling Spike in the fine art of satire, Bill Lee and choreographer Otis Sallid  construct, as the first musical number in School Daze, a blistering attack on the battle between light-skinned and dark-skinned Blacks. This must have been an eye-opener for any non-Black folks who ventured to School Daze, but for me it was a shock anybody would talk about it onscreen, let alone do a full blown, West Side Story homage musical number about the topic. Rachel and Jane cross paths, and names are called. The Gamma Girls are the Wannabes (as in Wannabe White) and Rachel’s click is called the Jigaboos, after a popular racist term of the olden days.

Suddenly, the movie turns into a musical. Busting into Madame Re Re’s Beauty Salon set, Guy, Kyme, Campbell and their cliques break into song and dance. The song, Straight and Nappy, is mean, nasty and to the point. It’s also brilliant, with its 40’s swing musical sound and its 60’s era fiery lyrics (some of which I quoted at the beginning of this piece). If the Academy can give Oscars to catchy nonsense like “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp,” they could have thrown one at Bill Lee. 

While Bill Lee rhymes incendiary words like “cockleburs standin’ all over your head,” Sallid has his dancers make Al Jolson hand movements and, in a sequence that damn near gave me a heart attack, punctuates the song’s chorus with the dancers putting fans of Mammy and Scarlett O’Hara up to their faces.

School Daze needed more scenes like this. In musicals, people sing and dance their emotions, and Lee is a master craftsman of musical numbers. I wish he and Dickerson would reunite and tackle something like Bring In Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. There’s music in Lee’s camera movements in general, and I wish he trusted his superb visuals more than he does. Several times in Lee’s joints, including this one, he does something with his camera that says it all, then bogs things down further with all this lousy dialogue. There are several scenes like that in School Daze, including one in a KFC that could have easily been shortened by half its dialogue. Lee says he based the scene on a real life experience, and the intent behind the scene is powerful. But it’s awkward, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy, yet Lee has three shots that tell a great visual story in that scene. It’s fun to see Samuel Yell Jackson in the movie (especially since his role in Do The Right Thing begins with the words that tie these two films together), but the scene is too verbally preachy and overdone. 

Did KFC pay for this product placement? One actor turns the Chicken Littles sign on the table toward the camera!!!

The biggest complaint people have about School Daze is its surrealistic ending. Out of all of Spike Lee’s weird ass endings, this is the only one that makes sense. The jump to surrealism is jarring, but no less jarring than when people just start singing. Scored to Bill Lee’s beautiful Wake Up Suite, Dap runs through the college quad screaming “WAKE UP!” He’s followed by sleepy-eyed members of the cast, from Joe Seneca’s dean of Mission to Lee’s Half-Pint who, in the film’s prior scene, has joined in the villainy of Dean Big Brother All-mi-TEE, earning a violent disowning by Dap. Last to appear in the dream sequence is Julian, who looks at Dap with a sense of understanding. Then Dap looks at us, the audience, and asks us to do something:

"Please. Wake Up."

To quote Mookie in Do The Right Thing: I got it. I’m gone.

School Daze’s DVD comes with a commentary track by Spike Lee, who is genuinely amused by some of the things he lensed in this picture. He says he hasn’t seen the film in years, and his surprise at some of the things he forgot the film contained sounds real. The track is also very informative and well worth listening to for tales  of Lee’s own collegiate experience and the evil frat brothers he encountered. He also takes a few digs at his alma mater, which threw him off campus during the shooting of this film and who objected to Joe Seneca as the dean because he “looked too sambo-ish.” Lee also addresses the treatment of the Jane character in this film, whose act of love for her frat and her man is portrayed as a cruel, sexist trick on her by Julian. This type of thing, passing your girl from one frat brother to another, is more common than one might think. Even the great love of my life, who went to Fisk and roomed with a sorority pledge, told me nightmare stories about what went on. Lee comments that, at least back then, Black fraternity hazing were horrendous. He compares them to gang initiations, and even notes that, right after School Daze was released, a guy died in a hazing accident at Morehouse. 

Lee also explains why guys would suffer the way they do in order to join a frat: To get women. There's a line in the film where Dean Big Brother You-Know-Who tells Half-Pint "you ain't seen no paaaaarts of the pussy!" A lot of guys (including ones who looked like Spike Lee) couldn't get a woman to look at them, until they started pledging. Then they saw all paaaaaarts of the pussy. I still don't get it, and someone with the anti-social tendencies I sometimes exhibit never would. I've had all paaaaarts of the pussy, but none of the pieces were worth alcohol poisoning or getting my asshole busted with a paddle.

Spike's School Daze commentary is worth listening to, and regardless of how fractured and occasionally lecturing School Daze is, it’s worth seeing at least once.

Your Homework assignment:

Find a copy of that soundtrack, and refer to me from now on as “Dean (CLAP!) Big Nator Called Odie!” (Just kidding about that last thing…)


Bobby Wise said...

Excellent article! Haven't seen this film in a long time and surely have never thought about it as critically as you have.

(why is my word verification "haters"??)

odienator said...

why is my word verification "haters"??


You deserve some kind of prize for that! I have no control over the word verifications here at BMV, so I can't take credit. Confidentially, I'm waiting for my word verification to be "triflin'" or "whack."

DavidEhrenstein said...

I couldn't agre with you more about School Daze. It's an exhuberant "little musical" in the tradition of I Love Melvin, Give A Girl A Break and Pas Sur la Bouche. The "Straight and Nappy" number is a classic. While Mo' Better Blues is a sort-of musical (and a very mixed bag) it's a shame Spike hasn't taken on a full-press singing and dancing musical again, cause the man's got it in him!

odienator said...

it's a shame Spike hasn't taken on a full-press singing and dancing musical again, cause the man's got it in him!

I don't know if this counts, but he did do the Passing Strange thing for On Demand. I haven't seen it, but I'd like to see him do a full out movie musical, not just directing a recording of one onstage.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Close but no cigar. The staging of the numbers wasn't done by him. He simply filmed it. Still it serves to indicate there's a Stanley Done inside Spike screaming to get out.

I wonder what he thinks of Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

Brian Darr said...

Pretty sure this was my first Spike Lee film ever seen, and it made a big impression on me, being that I was at the time attending a historically white college in Iowa, and had no idea about most of what was going on in the film (we didn't have frats or sororoities at all). As you suggest in the midst of this terrific review, a guy like me had no idea about the issues brought up in the "Straight and Nappy" musical number, or much of the rest of the film. What I responded to most of all was Lee's filmmaking chops though. Between this and a videocassette viewing of Do the Right Thing shortly after, I followed the director more loyally than perhaps any other filmmaker, for a while, even if I didn't appreciate some of his films along the way at all. Once he began making as many movies for tv as for the cinema-video store circuit I started letting some of them slip through my film-viewing cracks (I think the Huey P. Newton Story is the first of his films I never tracked down) and I even skipped some of his theatrical films subsequently (She Hate Me and the Miracle at St. Anna, for instance) but I loved seeing Passing Strange when it came for a brief theatrical run here in San Francisco. It's true Lee didn't stage the wall-to-wall musical numbers here, but he did figure out how to use the camera to capture them (it's not just a proscenium shot, rest assured!); the project seems to fit perfectly with his sensibilities, and makes me agree with you and David that he should tackle a real, full-blown musical again soon!