After stirring things up with She’s Gotta Have It – in terms of both gender politics and filmmaking form – Spike Lee made his major-studio debut with School Daze, a musical satire about college life at a historically black university. The fact that Columbia Pictures produced this is hugely significant. It’s not only that School Daze is written and directed by an African-American filmmaker; it’s that it offers a black perspective outside of genre (blaxploitation) or historical fiction. For some white audiences, School Daze was scarily modern: set in the present, speaking to contemporary concerns and given the seal of approval of a major corporation.
It’s also incredibly didactic, something that usually rubs me the wrong way. Yet the musical format here – including “Straight and Nappy,” a beauty shop number that merges hair politics and Grease – is a good fit for Lee’s direct-address cinema. And Lee is also unique in that confrontation is intrinsic to his craft. Whatever point he’s trying to make is intimately wrapped up in the heightened performances, extreme camera techniques and exaggerated comedy he favors. Take away Lee’s provocative “preachiness,” and you take away his art.
It’s also worth noting that his sermons are often more complicated than they first seem. In School Daze, Dap (Laurence Fishburne) is clearly Lee’s most sympathetic mouthpiece. A socially conscious activist who’s campaigning for the school, Mission College, to divest funds from apartheid South Africa, Dap is held up in favorable opposition to the clownish, cruel fraternity brother (Giancarlo Esposito) who parades his pledges around campus in humiliating routines. Yet Dap also receives critique, especially when his girlfriend Kyme (Rachel Meadows) accuses him of dating her only because she has dark skin.
Skin tone is crucial to understanding School Daze’s brazenness as a major-studio film. It’s not only thematically addressed, but also visually displayed. The sex scenes are part of this, yes, but that was also the case with blaxploitation. More significant here is the beach-themed homecoming dance that the students attend in bathing suits. When an extended dance sequence (“Da Butt”) gets underway, Lee fills the frame with a sea of black skin. This isn’t just a party, it’s a social statement – African-American bodies staking out a new space on the mainstream screen.