School Daze

Being forced out of one’s comfort zone is a good thing, right?

So they say.

But I’m not so sure. I just watched School Daze, a 1988 pseudo-comedy written, directed, and produced by Spike Lee, who also played one of the lead roles. It’s primarily about colorism and other internal conflicts among the African-American students at Morehouse College … I mean Mission College, as Morehouse is subtly renamed in the movie. Mission describes itself as “historically black” and is portrayed as 100% black. So why was I so uncomfortable? It’s not that Spike Lee bothers me, but rather that I felt like an outsider unwillingly listening in on a family dispute. I’m sure you know what I mean: the family next door is having a prolonged verbal fight, and you have to listen in even though it’s none of your business and you would rather be somewhere else.

Perhaps this is all ancient history. After all, it was 28 years ago, and things change. Of course there’s a lot of open conflict today between black urban residents and white cops, but we don’t see much of the intramural conflict within the black community other than territorial disputes among gangs. At least we who are white don’t see it. I’m sure it’s still there. At any rate, the disputes at “Mission College” are certainly not about gangs: except for one brief town-vs-gown scene, School Daze is mostly about middle-class blacks, focusing especially on a fraternity and its “women’s auxiliary.” I don’t know much about fraternities, having gone to a college that didn’t have any, so “all I know is what I read in the papers.” But, at least as Spike Lee presents it, it seems that his black fraternity is pretty much like the stereotype of white fraternities. Is it accurate? Who knows?

All of this conflict is partially overlaid with larger political concerns. A group of students are protesting the college administration’s reluctance to divest from South Africa. (Recall that Mandela wasn’t freed from prison until 1990.) Also, the film opens with still images of various important figures from African-American history, most of whom are instantly recognizable, thereby (mis-)leading the viewer into thinking that that would be an important theme of the movie. But the movie didn’t turn out to be either informative or preachy (depending on one’s POV), merely a reminder of the outside world beyond the “important” concerns of Mission College, namely the disputes between the “wannabees” and the “jigaboos” in large part about skin color and hair — there goes that discomfort level again. Apparently there was a genuine dispute between the two groups of actors at one point during the filming of the movie, and Lee decided to leave it in as it heightened the sense of realism.

Speaking of the actors, this is the only movie I can think of where the cast is 100% black, which of course made me feel even more like an outsider. The point was enhanced by some of the production decisions, in particular the fact that several scenes were staged like movie musicals from the 1930s and 1940s. The acting, dancing, singing, sets, and direction were all magnificent. So I’m glad I saw it, but still…


Categories: Life, Movies & (occasionally) TV