School Daze debuted in the year 1988, to an audience already acquainted with Spike Lee’s theatrical, bullhorn-to-the-ear, way of relaying messages to an audience. The film takes place on a Historically Black College campus, in the late 80’s, in the midst of Africa’s apartheid. This film is significant it presents young black people at an interesting revival of black pride, and the ways that pride manifested itself and affected the various social groups of the fictional “Mission College”.
Like every college film there are social groups, and of course a hierarchy of those groups. Greek life reigns supreme on campus, as pledging minions carry out the (at times evil) wishes of their superiors. The leader of Gamma Phi Gamma – Julian (played by Giancarlo Espositio – a staple of Lee’s films), galivants on campus, displaying his “superior status” at every turn. The Greeks are constantly at odds with the politically inclined students, led by a young Lawrence Fishburne (another staple) who plays Dap. These two represent the constant conflict within the Black-American community at large of hair texture and skin-complexion.
Lee’s choice to use a college campus (especially as in the late 80’s/early 90’s black college campuses were gaining popularity with shows such as “A Different World” that reignited an interest in a HBCU education) as a microcosm for the Black community at large was a brilliant choice as black sororities have historically used “The Paper Bag test” as a qualification for membership. (For those unaware the Paper Bag test is a test of skin complexion – if you were as light or lighter than a paper bag, in addition to meeting the requirements of a sorority/fraternities, then you gained entry.)
This conflict is displayed in the huge musical number where the “Wannabes” and the “Jiggaboos” duke it out through jazzy melodies and fantastic choreography. The Wannabe’s representing the lighter, curlier-haired sisters, and the Jiggaboos representing the darker, kink-inclined women on campus. The conflict being played out in the song “Straight and Nappy” represents the eternal conflict African-Americans face with staying true to their roots and rejecting White ideals of beauty that the majority of us cannot reach, or conforming (and in that way losing a part of ourselves) to that standard to be successful in White world, but at the cost of losing ourselves. Here Spike’s Broadway influence is made apparent. Interestingly, I found upon further research the Spike Lee heightened tension between the actors by putting the Wannabe’s and Gamma Phi Gamma into hotels with better conditions than the actors playing the Jiggaboo’s and the activists. His strategy was so effective that the fight that breaks out during the step show was not planned, or acted at all. What we see on-camera are the real tensions between the actors bursting at the seams and exploding. Spike’s treatment of the lighter-skinned, curly-haired actors is interesting in that it parallels how life truly treats those on the lighter-spectrum of the skin color scale. The privileges afforded to them and the simultaneous scorn they received from the darker-complected blacks during filming are an unfortunate and realistic product of light-skinned privilege.
Another disturbing facet of Greek life is the male dominance, and sexual abuse that happens within this band of brothers. Statistically, women in college are more at risk for being raped and/or sexually assaulted at this point in their life than ever before. This becomes apparent when Julian makes his girlfriend Jane Toussaint have sex with Spike Lee’s character “Half-Pint” who must lose his virginity in order to attain “real manhood” and become a member of Gamma Phi Gamma. This sequence in which Jane has sex with Half-Pint then emerges tearfully afterward, while Half-Pint is cheered on by his friends, is a prime example of the masculine ego-stroking that goes on, and the manhood that constantly must be proven, not to women, but to other men within fraternities. It is ironic that the same privilege that Jane is afforded because of her light skin (and the perceived beauty that accompanies her complexion that puts her on the top of the social hierarchy she is placed on, is also what qualifies her as top-pick for being sexually objectified and raped. In instances of colorism such as this, I think Spike Lee shows that no one really wins. Not until we embrace all the textures of hair, and the variations of pigment in the African-American diaspora, will we reach unity, and move beyond the original “massah’s” original divide and conquer tactics.
Sadly these same conflicts of hair texture and color, are still relevant today. Though particularly dated in it’s fashion and musical styles, School Daze holds up as a testament to the progress we’ve yet to make, and the many things African American society has achieved since the year 1988…and also how little some things have changed. On a positive note the sense of community, and black pride have seen an upswing in recent years.
All in all, Lee’s brave script, symbolism, and ambitious musical numbers create an entertaining 121 minutes.