It's been 35 years since Spike Lee's sophomore feature film, School Daze, brought cinema's first exploration into the lives of students at a historically Black college and tackled subjects that weren't widely discussed, not just in college films, but in American cinema as a whole. In School Daze, issues such as colorism, hair bias, divisions within the Black community, and the importance of Historically Black/College Universities serve as catalysts for many of the conflicts. Lee, a graduate of the historically Black Morehouse College, examines and delves into these topics with the hopes of doing more than just making a film.

The Expression Of Black Life in 'School Daze'

Musical number in Spike Lee's School Daze.

School Daze makes itself loud and clear that this is a Black story with the opening credits exhibiting Spike Lee's eye on history. It starts with pictures of a slave ship playing over "I'm Building Me a Home." As the pictures show progresses, they show advancements in civil rights as Black Americans go from slavery to freedom to fighting segregation to the Black power movement, as well as show photos of prominent Black figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Kwame Ture. There are also photos of figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T Washington, who advocated the importance of education for the pursuit of Black Liberation. It's no surprise that the man who would later go on to make Malcolm X and the documentary Four Little Girls, sees how history informs our present.

In the opening scene, there's a protest, led by student Dap (Laurence Fishburne) calling on the fictional HBCU, Mission College, to divest from South Africa due to the nation's racist system of Apartheid. As Dap gives his speech and lambasts Mission College's failure, the camera faces the crowd and swims across this sea of all Black faces who are listening to every word that Dap speaks. The extended camera sweep telegraphs that not only are we in a predominately Black school but in a Black story where we as the audience will focus on the lives of these Black characters.

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Within this story of Black college, Lee offers us a look at the divisions among Black people on how to exist in American society. One of the most visible sources of tensions displayed in the film is between The Gamma Rays, a female companion to the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity on campus, led by Jane Touissant (Tisha Campbell) and the women not associated with Greek life. Lee has this as a setup between the lighter skinned Gamma Rays and the darker skinned women, headed by Dap's girlfriend, Rachel (Kyme), who both view each other with disdain. Their first interaction comes early in the film when each group runs into the other in a hallway and starts name-calling each other based on their hair and skin tone. Then the film takes a turn.

The film then goes to this dreamlike sequence styled in the way of a 1950-60s lavish Technicolor musical at a salon. It's there that a musical number occurs between the two groups of women about how they have "good hair" and the other has "bad hair:" "Well you got nappy hair/Nappy's alright with me/My hair is straight you see/Soul's crooked as can be." This seven-minute sequence of the two groups of women dancing and singing is perhaps the first full-on delve into colorism on film as the non-Gamma are referred to as the slur "jiggaboo" as a result of their dark skin and the Gamma Rays are referred to as the "wannabees," as in the accusation of them wanting to be white. We see here how colorism can pit people against each other in a racist system where they can look down on each other when they are both hated for having Black skin.

We also see tensions between Dap and the people in his life as a result of his commitment to social activism. He has issues with his cousin, Half-Pint, (Spike Lee) pledging to a fraternity, and Rachel plans to pledge to a sorority in the following semester. Dap's reaction to Rachel's plan angers him as he views these societies and those who join them as nothing more than sellouts. There's a scene in the film where he chastises his friends for not being ready, willing, and able to be down for the cause at any moment. One of them tells him that he can't risk it because he's the first of his family to go college and wants what is expected with a college education: access to the American dream. Lee doesn't craft School Daze as a polemic against those who can't give their lives for a cause but as an exploration between two schools of thought. Dap's persuasion is that of a young Black adult who wants to fight for people of all the Black Diaspora.

Black Greek Life

school daze giancarlo esposito
Image via Columbia Pictures

As a subplot to the main story with Dap, there's the story of the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity, led by Julian (Giancarlo Esposito). The pledges face hazing as part of the initiation to the fraternity. They are put through grueling and humiliating tasks (such as having to put their hands in toilets fishing for bananas that they thought were excrement). This is perhaps one of the first instances of Black Greek life in the film. We see the culture that comes from it. A scene they are having a step show portrays an elegance and style of it that had never been seen in mainstream American film at that point. The look at Greek Life provides much of the film's comedic relief as these sequences really are part of the lineages of '80s sex comedies in terms of Half-Pint's development over the course of the film, but there it differs in how it reveals the misogyny that underlines these societies.

One of Julian's goals for Half-Pint is to have sex with a woman as he "ain't pledging no virgins," which culminates in Julian "offering" Jane, his girlfriend, to Half-Pint after he's pledged. As they make their way to the "bone room," Jane is crying as she has to commit an act that she only agreed to her out of her love for Julian and the sense of duty she feels not just to him, but to the Gamma Phi Gamma. After the ordeal is done, the other Gamma men gather around the door and ask Half-Pint all the questions about what happened and what was it like, all the while Jane's face is smeared with mascara from her crying as they treat her like she doesn't exist. After she's doing what she is told, Julian chastises her and leaves her. Julian rejects her after he told her what to do, and she acquiesces to his wishes out of love and devotion but was punished for it. To the men of Gamma, Jane is nothing more than a prop or a tool for their pleasure to be thrown away at a moment's notice.

Music Helps The Story

Tisha Campbell in Spike Lee's School Daze

Music is a large part of the storytelling in the film. As mentioned before, the "Good Hair, Bad Hair" musical sequence epitomizes the colorism in the film, but the film is also filled with musical performances that are intercut with the scenes of the characters. "I Can Only Be Me" is a song performed as part of the Homecoming festivities it's intercut with scenes with both Dap and Rachel making passionate love and as someone is being crowned at the competition with the song being a ballad for the yearning for the acceptance of being who there are. Phyllis Hyman singing "Be One" is intercut with scenes of couples in loving embraces and tenderness while slow dancing as this love song provides the soundtrack to their love. And of course, there's the "Da Butt" by E.U. where everyone dances in their bathing suits and underwear, which really shows the fun and joy of college. The songs in the film are there to build the story and examine what these characters yearn for and their desires, whether it's just for acceptance, for love and tenderness, or just having fun shaking some booty.

The score is exceedingly important as well. Scored by Spike Lee's father, Bill Lee, the jazz-influenced score of the film forms a significant part of the feeling in the film, especially in the final scene of the film. As it's the morning after the night's festivities, Dap screams into the camera: "WAKE UP" the music swells with each person who is awakened and with each scream to wake up. All culminate when all the characters, in their sleepwear, stand in front of the Mission College bell. The sound of the trumpet swells and grows with each step Julian takes towards the bell where Dap is standing in front.

The music gets more operatic as Julian and Dap face each other. It's only then, that they turn to the camera, and Dap pleads to the audience:"Please, wake up." This scene culminates with what Spike Lee was trying to say with this film and his other films and having it punctuated with the musical backing of his father was his way of giving the audience the call to action.

The action is to wake up and look at your surroundings and see what is going on in the world around you. School Daze was one of the many Spike Lee films that demands something from the audience and asks the audience to not be passive viewers but active agents.