Spike Lee’s amazing School Daze has the liberating feeling of something loose and cool breaking through on the screen. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his review of the movie, Lee makes no apologies about showing no white people in the movie — and more power to him. Lee’s loosely plotted depiction of life at an all-black college is refreshing in its — if you will — “segregation.” A viewer can perfectly well see that Lee wants to show a black milieu, free of the condescending whites of many lesser movies.
The majority of the story involves the college’s fraternity and sorority. Half-Pint (Spike Lee) is quite happy to sacrifice his individuality if it’ll get him into Gamma Phi Gamma, despite the best efforts of his cousin Dap (Laurence Fishburne, billed here as “Larry”) to radicalize his sibling. And sorority leader Jane (Tisha Campbell, who later had to suffer as Martin Lawrence’s wife in the sitcom “Martin”) has an intense relationship with lead Gamma man Julian (Giancarlo Esposito of “Breaking Bad”), which eventually has some beyond-unfortunate consequences for Jane.
The movie goes all over the place, but if it’s a mess, it’s an invigorating one. It goes from Half-Pint’s frat hi-jinks, to Dap’s getting humbled (somewhat) by a local man (Samuel L. Jackson!) who couldn’t care less about getting radicalized, to Julian’s unbelievably callous kiss-off to Jane. In between, there’s a great speech by Ossie Davis, as a coach who psychs up the college football team as though he’s giving a Sunday sermon, and an appropriately named dance number, “Da Butt” — placed in the film because Lee wanted to see what it was like to start a national trend.
And about a half-hour into the movie is what I consider its greatest moment (embedded below): An all-out musical number (written by Lee’s father Bill) called “Straight and Nappy,” in which the “wannabe” sorority girls, with their contact lenses and fancy hair, duke it out with the “jigaboos,” who let their hair go natural as a matter of pride. The number goes far beyond its reason for existence and just turns into a marvel to watch. You can just about touch the joy in the performances of the women, who seem to marvel at the chance to show their stuff. (Look at those happy faces at number’s end.) For me, it was 1988’s best movie scene, and it made me wish the entire movie had been a full-fledged musical (though it squeezes in a couple of other numbers, one by Stevie Wonder).
I met Spike Lee at a book signing shortly after this movie came out. At that point, I was so thrilled with his movies and to see him in the flesh, I burst out at him, “I hope the studios let you make movies forever!” Lee looked up at me wordlessly, and you could see his thoughts in his eyes: Who is this crazy white man? Well, what I am is a movie enthusiast who loves great movies that have an individual point of view, rather than looking like they were steered by committee. And how many committees would approve a musical number called “Straight and Nappy”?
School Daze is one of Spike Lee’s loosest movies, and still one of his best.