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School Daze [Movie Review]

Summary

School Daze is a 1988 Spike Lee film (or shall I say “joint”) about the divisions between various factions on the campus of a fictional HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities). Former friends turned foes, Dap and Julian are leaders of their respective social groups on Mission College’s campus. Both male groups have female groups as their counterparts with them referring to each other in pejorative terms as the “Jigaboos” and “Wannabes” (aka Gamma Rays). Interactions between these four main groups as well as other individuals during homecoming weekend lead to conversations about colorism, classism, sexism, hazing, Black identity, and more.

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

When you think of movies, does motion more readily come to mind versus photography? In most films, yes. But one of the features that I like with Spike Lee’s projects, whether documentaries or movies, are the breaks that feature still images with music playing. The first project where I noticed this was She’s Gotta Have It, both the TV show (which I loved) and also the film (which I don’t like). It’s present in the opening credits of School Daze where there is this telling of Black history through images and music. Though I didn’t immediately get the connection that it had to the subject of School Daze.

The film opens with Dap (Laurence Fishbourne) standing on the steps of a building at a rally calling for divestment from South Africa in protest of apartheid. During the 1980s there was a vocal call for individuals, businesses, and other institutions to boycott South Africa in support of Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid. Dap points out that several predominantly white institutions (PWIs) had already joined the boycott of apartheid South Africa. But here it is that you have this HBCU that hasn’t taken a stand and is still hanging back instead of leading the charge against the prejudicial treatment and oppression of Black people.

Julian aka Big Brother Almighty (Giancarlo Esposito) is the leader of the largest and most popular fraternity on campus, Gamma Phi Gamma. If you’re not familiar with him, Esposito is an amazing actor whose career I’ve followed for years. He’s one of those actors like Khandi Alexander who might not star in major films but are incredibly talented and I’ll check out a show or movie just because they make an appearance.

The Gammas pop up seemingly with the sole purpose of disrupting the rally. It seems like not only are they protesting the call for divestment from South Africa but also political activism in general. There’s a clear divide between the Greeks and non-Greeks and while some elements are borrowed from real life, Lee takes some creative license. Dap is socially conscious and works to bring awareness of Black diaspora issues to campus to make the student body more politically aware and active. Julian and the Greeks view college as a place to network and get ahead so they’re far more interested in having a good time and social climbing.

The two sides represent two factions or more accurately schools of thought within the Black community. On the one side, you have the Gammas and Gamma Rays who are planning to get ahead by working within the existing social structure. On the other side, you have Dap who wants to change and improve things by challenging the system and redefining Black success. He is less interested in assimilating into mainstream society and more focused on establishing not necessarily a Black society but celebrating and exploring Black culture.

To be a part of the in-crowd, Gamma pledges are willing to endure all kinds of mistreatment, embarrassment, and absolute disrespect. This speaks to the reality that some people are willing to sacrifice all pride and self-respect for social standing or inclusion in a social group. These young men’s parents have sent them to college to further their education in preparation for their future careers. And here they are on their knees barking and carrying on with nonsense. The young women are chasing and cleaning up behind these boys just to be a part of the crew.

First off, you should know that Julian isn’t wrapped too tight, because it’s 1988 and this man is rocking some jodhpurs with nary a horse in sight. You heard me right, britches. And it’s a minor thing but Julian’s haircut looked rather old-fashioned and out of place for the period. It was like a fade with a high top that was parted down the middle and brushed to the sides. This reminded me of haircuts that I’d seen from the early 1900s. One might say that it was a “Talented 10th” hairstyle.

As we’re introduced to the various characters in the early scenes I was surprised to see so many Black actors that I might not know by name but have seen in films over the years. First off, it looked like they took half of the cast from A Different World and put them in School Daze. And several other actors would go on to make appearances in Lee’s future films. It’s interesting to see some of these actors in what was an early film in their career and know what they’ve gone on to do in the years since.

These two groups are arguing over whether being passive or politically active is the best path forward for Black people to achieve progress. But a similar conversation is taking place in the upper levels of the college administration between Harold McPherson, the president of the college, and Cedar Cloud, chairman of the school’s board of trustees. Cloud is afraid that the on-campus protests might make some donors uncomfortable. These were uncertain times for HBCUs and alienating donors could add to the school’s problems.

HBCUs were mostly established in the years after the end of the Civil War. The formerly enslaved and free Black people in the South had a strong desire for themselves and their children to be educated. They pooled their resources and combined that with some assistance from the government and philanthropists to establish colleges and universities in the South. By the time School Daze was released, blatant segregation had been ruled unlawful. As Black people now theoretically had greater access to mainstream resources and institutions there was a discussion about if there was still a need for Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs).

A point that’s made in the film which I never considered in this conversation is the reality that other communities within America also have dedicated universities. Notre Dame is a huge Catholic school, Brigham Young is Mormon, and Yeshiva is Jewish. Granted, they’re colleges geared towards members of particular religions and thus receive support from associated religious organizations. That’s not to say that they don’t also get funding from the government and tuition. But they’re supported by their respective communities.

And so the question is asked if HBCUs are in large part supported by the federal government and philanthropists, should they continue to exist? And then keeping on that track, why is it or why does it seem that Black people don’t support these schools? To answer that question and any question about the difference in financial support and resources provided by Black people versus other groups, we have to look at the history of America.

HBCUs were created because Black people had been enslaved, and excluding a minority, denied access to education for 200+ years. Black people were then subjected to Jim Crow and segregation which helped to establish and perpetuate an education and wealth gap. Is it any wonder that Black people did not have the money to support these institutions at the same level as other groups of people who had not been similarly oppressed?

Black people were financially oppressed by slavery, Jim Crow, and the other systems that were created to exploit the community but received no real reparations in return. The least the state and federal government could do is provide financial support to the educational institutions that were specifically created to serve the descendants of the formerly enslaved. So no, HBCUs nor funding for HBCUs should be done away with. If anything, more should have been done immediately following the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, and even now.

This made me think about my own experience when I was in high school and considering colleges. Like most people, I was a far different person then than I am now with regards to maturity, life experience, and even my relationship with race and outlook on the world as a Black person. But here I was as a teenager with no real-life experience and very little guidance on how to pick a college. Yet I was expected to figure out this decision that could have a tremendous impact on the rest of my life.

My high school had a college advisor but I was one of 400+ students in my graduating class. To be fair, this lady was on it with regards to helping students through the process. But I skipped a year of high school which caused me to miss out on a lot of the college guidance programs that were made available for students. The counselor helped as best as she could with regards to getting application materials together and submitting them properly but she couldn’t hold my hand and personally guide me through the process. My mother didn’t attend college so she couldn’t offer any guidance. I didn’t have anyone to offer guidance on what to look for in a college in general, and certainly not what to look for in a college as a Black student.

Fortunately, by this point, the internet was a thing and I was able to use websites to figure out what I might want to study and based on that found a few schools. I’m kind of ashamed to say it now but at the time, HBCUs weren’t even on my radar. Part of the issue was that I didn’t want to leave New York City. But also that I didn’t know anyone that had attended an HBCU and I allowed a family member’s stereotypical views and assumptions about the institutions to influence my decision.

It was one of those “the ice is always colder things” where she felt that HBCUs weren’t on the same level as general schools or PWIs. Not to mention, college was positioned as a place to learn but also to build relationships and network. I was told that attending an HBCU wouldn’t prepare me for the world as I would primarily be surrounded by other Black people and needed to be experienced and comfortable with working with people unlike myself.

I’d like to think that in the years since I’ve grown as a person. I’ve questioned myself, done my research, and learned a lot along the way. Looking back I can now see how problematic and racist that ideology is, and it’s especially troubling having been internalized by a Black person.

To a degree, HBCUs tend to have fewer resources in comparison to other schools. And if we’re being honest, graduation rates have also been an issue. At the time, this was positioned to me as this was because the schools and students they admitted were typically inferior. I don’t think I believed that explanation then, but having limited knowledge on the subject couldn’t offer an alternative. In the present, I think many of the issues with HBCUs mirror the problems within the general Black community. These problems are not a result of any kind of Black pathology but simply a lack of access to resources.

HBCUs possibly have fewer resources in comparison to other schools because they have existed for longer and have wealthier alumni with more resources at their disposal. It’s a reflection of the wealth gap that exists in general society between Black and White people. The increase in college attendance began around the time of the GI bill which was established in the 1940s. But Black people were still limited with regards to the schools they could attend and the jobs they could obtain, even after graduation. So if the wealth gap was already in existence and blatant segregation and discrimination were still a problem well into the 1960s and 1970s, many Black people would have just been first or second-generation college students.

There have been countless studies that show that even with increased college attendance and graduation rates Black people do not have household incomes or wealth on par with their White counterparts. (And that’s before we even get to the present issue of student loan debt.) Where would the average HBCU alum who is trying to support themselves and their family find the money to donate to their alma mater? This then results in HBCUs having less money to provide on-campus resources and financial assistance for students. There are lazy and immature students on just about every college campus. But less support being available for students who are willing but struggling academically and/or financially likely plays a role in why some end up not graduating.

All in all, I graduated from college but sometimes think about what might have been if I’d gone through with my transfer to Clark Atlanta after freshman year. I don’t think I was ever cut out to attend college in a small town but might have enjoyed being in Washington, D.C., and attending Howard University. At that age, you think you know everything but don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s why I think it’s so important to remain open-minded and to re-examine your beliefs throughout life. If years go by and your views and opinions never evolve or change you’re probably not making the best use of your life.

A Different World premiered in 1987 and became a popular primetime sitcom with a predominantly Black cast. (I always thought the first season and original theme song were underwhelming.) And School Daze was released about five months later. I don’t think the media should be the final authority on anything but it can be a powerful tool. Between those two projects, there was this new imagery of Black youth not just attending college but attending HBCUs. How many Black youths might have become interested in college (though not necessarily for the right reasons) because they were seeing these young Black kids on tv and in the movies having fun at college?

Typically, I like music biopics and movies that feature good music. But I don’t like musicals where there’s any kind of sing-talking or random dance breaks. A lot of people seem to like the scene where the Jigaboos led by Rachel (Kyme) and Wannabes led by Jane (Tisha Campbell) face off in a song and dance routine that takes place in a hair salon. I dislike it; not because I found it offensive or anything along those lines but because I would have preferred for the conversation to have just used regular dialogue. To start, the song is just lame which is a minor issue. The bigger problem is that what began as a valid and real conversation, though heated, gave way to singing and dancing this whack song.

Colorism and featurism are issues within the Black community between not just women but men as well. Black people come in a variety of shades and hues but colorism, featurism, and the associated stereotypes create negative feelings within the Black community. For the most part, the Gamma Rays are light-skinned with perms or weaves while the other set of girls are dark-skinned with naturals. In real life, the way that you wear your hair doesn’t automatically correlate with your views and opinions. Having one physical appearance or the other doesn’t make you more or less Black than anyone else.

Comedy and satire when done well can offer biting commentary on society but it needs to be witty. That’s not the case with this scene. If the conversation had continued as just dialogue, it would have likely gotten uncomfortable and I feel like Lee pulled a punch here. I felt like he held back instead of pushing the envelope because while it’s a real conversation to have, the topic is uncomfortable and views can be politically incorrect.

This is also the only scene where the two female factions on campus come face to face with each other. The beginning reminded me of the first scene in School Daze where you have Julian and the Gammas versus Dap and his crew. The guys get up in each other’s faces and they almost come to blows. I don’t think most women would end up fighting in such a situation but might trade witty one-liners. Having that conversation would have felt more realistic and entertaining. I consider this scene one of the film’s weak points or more accurately missed opportunities.

In a sense, the conversation continues between Rachel and Dap. She concedes that there is certainly colorism being exhibited by the students on campus with lighter skin towards students with darker skin and/or natural hair. But Rachel also points out that Dap certainly has some animosity towards Black people with light skin.

They end up in an argument when she shares her interest in pledging a sorority the following school year which Dap is totally against. He has no respect for Greek life as it goes against his values and the vision he has of himself as being pro-Black. I think being pro-Black is cool and necessary but Dap is a bit of a killjoy. Not to mention, Rachel seems like a fairly level-headed person so likely wouldn’t go as far as the Gamma pledges. She supports Dap but should also be free to have interests outside of him in which he might have no interest.

Rachel expresses her concern that Dap might not necessarily be into her because he likes her as a person. It could just be that he’s with her because she matches his image. She’s dark skin with natural hair and her physical traits fit into his vision allowing her to function as an accessory for him.

People have different ideas of what success looks like but much of society has historically revolved around White ideals and imagery. This has resulted in mainstream concepts of success typically portraying the lives of middle-income and wealthy White people as the ideal. The same is true to a degree for concepts of what’s considered beautiful. Internalizing this, some Black people equate success with obtaining access to or acceptance into what’s been traditionally White spaces. In efforts to assimilate into mainstream society, they might try to cultivate an image that fits into that world or where they feel they have some piece of that world. This might mean pursuing romantic partners who have features such as light skin, light eye color, hair types, and textures that are typically associated with White people.

We’ve seen this play out in countless movies and tv shows but here the dynamic is flipped. Dap goes to the opposite extreme and in his attempt to reject anything associated, even tangentially, with mainstream culture and beauty standards. This gives rise to what Rachel points out as his issues with light-skinned Black people and his selection of her to be his girlfriend as with regards to physical features she is the Blackest woman that he can find on campus. Either version of this is wrong because you’re not dealing with the person as a person but rather as a prop.

Dap is possibly using Rachel as an accessory, a living symbol that publicly affirms his Blackness. She reinforces the image he is trying to create as a pro-Black man. As we see when he’s speaking to Rachel and also his friends, Dap has a very well-intentioned though rigid idea of Blackness. It’s like on one end of the spectrum you have respectability politics and the idea where Black people should work to gain acceptance into White society by assimilating. On the other side of the spectrum, you have this equally narrow view of Blackness that attempts to push back against racism and assimilation by trying to force Black people to be and act in one way. Both ideologies attempt to force Black people into fitting stereotypes instead of being a variety of human beings like everyone else.

We see that there are levels to this Black card pulling game when Dap and his boys venture to a local KFC to grab a bite. While there they get into it with some local guys who are headed up by Leeds played by none other than Samuel L. Jackson. (For a time he was the go-to guy for a character causing a ruckus in a fast food joint. See “Coming to America”.) It starts as a somewhat comical scene but becomes another conversation about these divisions within the Black community this time with regards to education and assumed income levels. Where Dap questions people’s Blackness and activism on campus from a position of moral superiority, these guys pull his card for being what they see as privileged.

Putting aside Leeds and his boys looking way too old to be arguing with some college kids, they take issue with these guys coming into their town to attend school and then grabbing up all the jobs. College students typically spend a lot of time on campus but depending on the environment, they might venture out into the neighboring area. This might be dependent on if the surrounding area is a bustling city with a lot to do versus a small town. In smaller towns, isolated areas, or campuses where everything is available on-site, students might not venture off-campus and thus have limited interaction with local people. And as with most groups of people, even among Black people, a lack of interaction and familiarity can make it easy for assumptions to be made. Whether right or wrong, college students might be perceived as thinking themselves above the locals.

Dap sees himself as being “Blacker” than the Gammas but off-campus people don’t see him as being any different. Leeds and his guys see themselves as the standard of Blackness and define it as being poor, without access to post-secondary education, and struggling to find work. There’s some internalized anti-Blackness at play here and speaks to their insecurities. While giving voice to how they perceive Dap and his crew, it also says a lot about how they see themselves.

At the same time, there was an earlier scene where Dap had an exchange with the college admin where they issued an ultimatum about his activism. They take issue with his push for divestment because it’s making the donors uncomfortable. This conversation was taking place in the 80s so the elders would have been of the Civil Rights generation and Dap about the age of an activist’s young adult child.

This character, in particular, marched with Dr. King but now opposes a student taking a stand. You have this elder trying to shut him down for being too controversial. Dap rightly points out that the movement was 20 years ago but Black people are still fighting for equal rights. All these years later, people such as the college admin are a bit older and in a different place in life so they have a different perspective on taking a stand and speaking out. They’re more interested in not rocking the boat.

Throughout the film, there are these various conversations about what it means to be Black. But the reality is that Black people aren’t a monolith so there’s no one true way to be Black.

The step show was cool but devolved into immaturity when Dap & Co crashed the Gamma’s performance in retaliation for their disruption of the divestment rally. There’s also another instance in the ongoing theme of the Gamma Rays existing to be of service to the Gammas when they’re shown picking up the clothing items the Gammas cast aside.

While overall School Daze is a pretty smart movie, it does show its age and a weak spot when Dap and the guys resort to using homophobic slurs in an attempt to insult the Gammas. It goes back to the earlier scene where Rachel called out Dap on his issues with light-skinned Black people. I’ve seen this aspect of colorism play out frequently in Black media. Frequently dark-skinned Black men are portrayed as being manly and masculine while light-skinned Black men are portrayed as being soft, emotional, pretty boys as though one’s complexion has anything to do with those characteristics.

For whatever reason, it’s happened in several movies where a guy stands outside a girl’s window at night yelling to ask her out or apologize for some wrong he’s committed. School Daze is probably the only movie that has a realistic portrayal of how this would play out in real life. Some random guy standing outside hollering his business in the middle of the night while you’re trying to relax or rest? Don’t be surprised if other people interject their opinions because you obviously wanted them to be in your business. All of those women clowning Dap was probably one of the funniest scenes in School Daze.

Rachel makes some good points about Dap and his shortcomings. But I disagreed with her assessment that he might be with her because of the image he’s trying to portray or more accurately solely because of the image he wants to portray. Outside of maybe his boys, she’s the only person who calls him out in a way that resonates with him. She doesn’t down his views as they are well-intentioned but rather pushes him to see how being judgmental and persnickety can prevent people from hearing his message. He certainly likes her because of her physical attributes but also because of her personality and who she is as an individual.

I could never get into the vibe of clubs but I loved on-campus college parties and the movie’s party scene took me back. It just seemed like a good time without the posing and stunting of a club. This was a dance break but it felt more natural along the lines of the step show as opposed to the salon routine. It wasn’t overly choreographed or stylized and looked like something that would take place on a college campus. The Phyllis Hyman transition was a dope touch and very in keeping with parties. Stretches of up-tempo music followed by a period of slow dancing to catch your breath and pull somebody close.

Something else that I appreciated was that unlike other movies and later music videos, the women were not the only ones dressed for the pool party theme. It doesn’t feel exploitative because both genders are equally matched as the ladies and guys are dressed in swim attire and there’s a variety of hues and body types. Compare that to the typical scene where the women would be half-dressed while the guys are fully clothed and ogling.

It’s ridiculous for there to be a beach or pool scene where the women are scantily clad in bathing suits while the men are wearing jeans, a sweater, a snorkel, and Timberlands. Granted, some women’s bathing suits can be a bit much but for the most part, are completely appropriate for the pool or beach. A man wearing swim trunks or briefs is perfectly fine, it’s what men wear at the beach. Why can’t they also wear that in movies or music videos? And don’t even get me started on female versus male nudity in movies.

As is to be expected, Half Pint and the other Gamma pledges crossover but the guys are still on Half Pint about his being a virgin. Julian has grown tired of Jane and wants to get rid of her but instead of just being straightforward he decides to be manipulative in the process. Half Pint catches the most flack out of all the pledges but Julian asks Jane to have sex with him? I don’t think you even need red flags in such a situation to let you know something wasn’t right. But if you did, that would certainly be one.

Jane was licking this man’s scalp all up and in between his weirdly parted hair just the night before. And that same man is supposed to be your boyfriend but he’s okay with you having sex with some other guy? It’s not like they have an open relationship or this was some guy she was attracted to and he gave her a pass. But some random recruit? Girl, if you don’t kick that jodhpur-wearing man to the curb. The whole situation is disgusting. It’s like he’s pimping her out to his little homie.

But you know what’s truly problematic? How realistic this is.

Young men and women in gangs, sororities, and other social groups who are craving acceptance at any cost are susceptible to giving in to this kind of peer pressure. At least initially, Half Pint is uncomfortable and doesn’t want to do this. And Jane certainly doesn’t want to either. But they both give in because he wants to fit in with the Gammas and she wants to maintain her position with Julian and the Gamma Rays. And to add insult to injury, after Jane has sex with Half Pint, Julian turns around and casts her aside. His supposed reasoning being that she failed his test by sleeping with his frat brother for position and clout. Julian is a disgusting character but it says something that both Half Pint and Jane went along with his request to be a part of the in-crowd.

Jane, even as “queen” of the Gamma Rays has a role that seems to consist of serving the Gammas and their needs. We hear a lot throughout School Daze about what it means to be a Gamma man (it still leaves much to be desired). Yet, there’s almost nothing of note about what it means to be a Gamma Ray though we mostly just see them doing stuff for the Gammas. Early on one of the Gamma Rays speaks up that she’s not interested in throwing a party for the Gammas and cleaning up after them. But she’s then shouted down by some of the other sorors.

It was great that when Half Pint went to tell Dap that he had sex for the first time that Dap didn’t applaud him when he shared the context of the situation with Jane. Dap rightfully called him out for being foul and using Jane in that way which speaks to his lack of principles and character. Of the guys that know what happened, he’s the only one (and maybe Julian) that didn’t cheer Half Pint on.

The situation with Julian and Jane mirrors the earlier argument between Dap and Rachel. Rachel called Dap out because she felt he might have only been with her for his image. But we see that’s likely not the case as he goes out on a limb in front of her dorm to apologize and reaffirm his interest. When Julian first expresses to his frat brothers his desire to break up with Jane, he explains it as her not liking him but rather his position as leader of the frat. While he pushes Jane to have sex with Half Pint, when the other guys are celebrating afterward he just stares at them. Jane didn’t want to have sex with Half Pint but she went ahead with it because it’s what she felt she had to do to maintain her position which proved Julian’s point.

Often within the Black community, we speak openly about colorism and race but are less open to acknowledging sexism. And while School Daze isn’t perfect, I thought this was one of the movie’s most solid parts. There was a slow build-up throughout the movie with little hints and nudges along the way which all came together quite well in this scene.

Mission is like a small ecosystem but these people are going to graduate and go out into the world. And the prejudices and negative views that they hold are going to go with them. And so this small microcosm presents some of the larger issues within the general Black community. But this age is a period of change and growth for a lot of people and their experiences will have a tremendous impact on who they become later in life.

Julian was dead wrong for what he did to Jane but there was some truth in the explanation that he gave to her about why they couldn’t be together anymore. He was manipulative. But, indeed, she and Half Pint were so far gone and wrapped up in the social-climbing and Gamma / Gamma Ray thing that they were willing to compromise and debase themselves. They completely disregarded the other person’s humanity as well as their own just to be a part of the group.

I’ll play devil’s advocate here and assume that if Jane decided not to participate and wanted to leave, Julian and the other guys would have let her. Likewise, Half Pint could have continued to refuse as well. Jane was not enthusiastic about the situation and Half Pint picked up on this so he started out telling her that they didn’t have to do this. She said they should just get it over with. He goes along with it and starts taking his clothes off and attempting to kiss her while she looks disgusted.

Half Pint is caught up in this whole thing about what it means to be a man and utters all of these Gamma platitudes that mean nothing. There’s a lot of talk but no real principles or morals. It’s just this very superficial thing that he’s fighting and sacrificing so much of himself to join to the point of losing himself in the process. All along he’s just playing these versions of himself based on what other people want him to be. He pretends to be concerned about Jane but then goes along with having sex with her while pretending to be resigned to his fate. And then in the very next scene, he’s running to brag and tell Dap what happened.

When Dap runs out to wake the campus, there’s a montage of the other characters waking up from the fun or hedonism of the night before. Julian gave Jane a speech about character and loyalty but then we see him sleeping in bed with Dina (Jasmine Guy), one of the other Gamma Rays and seemingly Jane’s main homegirl. So for all his talk about Jane just being with him because of his status and position, he’s no better. He uses his position as a Gamma to sleep with Gamma Rays and Gamma Rays sleep with him most likely because he’s the leader of the Gammas. For all the slogans they repeat and words that the Gammas recite, none of them are living up to what they say they believe in.

School Daze began with Julian and Dap on these steps wrapped up in their views and unwilling to even try to see the other side’s perspective. Julian and Dap coming together at the end and calling for everyone to wake up is like a coming together of these different factions of Black society.

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