The 12 Days of Blogmas – Day 4

Day4

Again, I make with the Santa routine on Day 4 of The 12 Days of Blogmas, where I “gift” a movie or TV clip to one of my favorite bloggers as it relates to his or her interests. (Click here for a more detailed explanation of my gift-giving theme.)

Today’s lucky winner is Wendell of the blog Dell on Movies. Wendell’s movie tastes are cheerfully all-encompassing, but being African-American, he seems to have a predilection for black-themed movies. (You should read his takes on the blaxploitation genre.)

That being the case, I hereby gift Wendell with one of my all-time favorite movie musical scenes, from Spike Lee’s invigorating School Daze (1988). The movie is a mostly plotless but highly energetic look at life on the campus of an all-black college. One of the movie’s many subplots is an ongoing conflict between the campus’ two groups of females: the “Jigaboos” (darker-skinned women with short, often unkempt hair) and the “Wannabes” (the lighter-skinned sorority girls who ‘do their hair to look fancy).

Early on in the movie, the groups’ conflict comes to a head in an eye-popping, brilliant musical number titled “Straight and Nappy.” If you haven’t seen the movie, you might not get the full force of this number out of context. For me, it was one of the most joyous moments I’ve ever seen on screen, with lovely women of all shapes and sizes letting it all hang out and enjoying every minute of it. (Look at those beaming faces at the end of the number). I just love it.

The number is embedded below — sorry for the poor picture quality, but it was the only version I could find on YouTube. And be sure to be with us tomorrow for Day 5!

 

 

 

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Spike Lee’s 4 LITTLE GIRLS (1997) – Powerful documentary about violence against race

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4 Little Girls is a remarkably clear-eyed telling of an incendiary tale — how four young black girls, ages 11 to 14, were killed in a 1963 bombing in Birmingham, Alabama.
I hesitate to compare 4 Little Girls to Schindler’s List, and yet it has that same quality of being a restrained, dignified recounting of an emotional incident. Spike Lee had been wanting to tell this story since before he became a noted filmmaker, and Lee brings all of his remarkable talents to bear. The movie is not flashy, just quietly gripping.
Lee frames the incident within the bigger picture of the Southern civil rights movement, particularly as it took place within an inflamed Birmingham. We see the town’s police commissioner, Bull Connor — described by one interviewee as “the dark spirit of Birmingham” — keeping order in town while driving a tank painted white, an image that is sure to bring gasps to those who aren’t familiar with the full story (which, I humbly admit, included me). And we see a repentant Gov. George Wallace, dragging a reluctant black colleague on camera so that Wallace can introduce him as “my best friend in the world.” (Notably, the “friend” looks quite unconvinced.)
It is that Wallace footage that might seem the most showy in a documentary otherwise bereft of editorializing. But it seems right to include the footage after seeing how the segregationist tactics of Wallace and others led indirectly to the deaths of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. Using little more than home movies and interviews with surviving family members, Lee brings the dead girls back to life and shows us that, when racial stereotypes are accepted and even honored, individual tragedies are the result.
Mostly, the story is told through simple, heartbreaking facts. Chris McNair tells us of the day he had to explain to his daughter Denise how she was taken by the aroma of a cooking hamburger at a lunch counter but could not eat there because she was black. And the film comes full circle by pointing out the inexplicable resurgence of black church bombings in the 1990’s.
Most of the victims’ relatives, understandably, become quite emotional on-camera. It can’t have been easy to reopen these old wounds, but 4 Little Girls makes you grateful that they endured their pain to do it. I only wish the movie had been up for Best Picture, as it is worth a dozen L.A. Confidential‘s.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Don’t like Spike Lee? Go on and swear, see if I care

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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.