Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: School Daze (1988)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar

Innovative filmmaker Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It) brings to the screen a music-filled, offbeat contemporary comedy that takes an unforgettable look at black college life. Amidst gala coronations, football, fraternities, parades and parties, the stars of the film - Laurence Fishburne ("Dap" Dunlap), an intense student who encourages his buddies ("DaFellas") to fight for his beliefs; Giancarlo Esposito (Julian "Big Brother Almighty" Eaves), out to strengthen the Greek system with his Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity brothers; Spike Lee ("Half-Pint"), driven to become a "Gamma man"; and Tisha Campbell (Jane Toussaint), leader of the sorority sister "Gamma Rays" - find themselves caught up in romance and relationships/rituals and rivalries during one outrageous homecoming weekend. With dynamic music, including EU's hit "Da Butt", and dance numbers choreographed by Otis Sallid (Fame), Lee successfully challenges viewpoints about self-identity and self-esteem in this original, contemporary musical comedy.

Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, Kyme, Joe Seneca, Ellen Holly
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English Dolby Surround, Spanish & French Digital Stereo; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated R; 121 min.; $24.95; street date 1/30/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director Spike Lee; Talent Files; Bonus Trailers; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/C-

After the success of his first feature film - 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It - Spike Lee inevitably was pursued by the major studios to produce his next effort. Once Columbia grabbed him, Lee turned his eye toward a subject foreign to most moviegoers: the atmosphere at America’s traditionally black colleges.

Lee attended Morehouse, so his interest in this subject seemed logical. The result was 1988’s School Daze, an erratic but generally interesting look at the subject.

SD focuses on the events at fictional Mission College during Homecoming Weekend and seems to be equal parts celebration and condemnation. The former appears evident through Lee’s emphasis on much of the pageantry of the occasion. A variety of events like step shows and parades receive much more screen time than one would expect, and though these scenes felt somewhat self-indulgent at times, I suppose they were necessary to provide viewers unfamiliar with the events the appropriate background.

Actually, SD functions as a pseudo-musical, though it really only includes one true production number: a fantasy battle over hairstyles between the “Wannabees” - who allegedly want to look white - and the “Jigaboos” - who prefer more natural appearances - that seemed to take West Side Story as its inspiration. Other than that scene, we find some musical performances but all are more realistically integrated into the film; for example, a performance by go-go group EU occurs during a dance, and some ballads are sung at similar functions.

SD was a hard film to categorize, and not just because of the musical scenes. It incorporates comedy and drama in such a way that neither truly dominates. In fact, certain scenes come across as both funny and harsh at the same time, such as some of the fraternity initiation sequences.

That side of SD provides its main plot, though it really doesn’t follow much of a story. Instead, the film is more about conflicts. We see the antagonism between the Jigaboos and the Wannabees, between the frat brothers and the pledges, between townsfolk and college students, and between specific characters. Actually, the latter conflict is really restricted to progressive activist-sort Dap (Larry Fishburne) and Gamma Phi Gamma leader Julian, AKA “Big Brother Almighty”; the two go at each other frequently, partially because Dap’s cousin Half-Pint (Lee) is pledging G-Phi-G.

As with Oliver Stone, Lee has always been an extremely erratic filmmaker, and those tendencies are clearly on display in SD. In many ways, it’s a weak movie. Though it’s character-based, the participants seem poorly-drawn and lack much development. We find them as thinly-rendered stereotypes and that’s largely how they stay.

Despite the presence of solid actors like Fishburne and Esposito, some of the performances are fairly bad as well. For some reason, the lesser work seems to fall on the female side of the fence. Tisha Campbell and Kyme both made for weak female leads; neither showed much acting talent as they made their characters wooden and uninteresting. Granted, some of the blame may lie on Lee; he’s never shown much of an affinity for female roles, and SD is mainly a boy’s club other than the production number for “Straight & Nappy”.

Then there’s the ending. Lee also never seems to know how to conclude his films, and that problem occurs once more during SD. I’m going to reveal the ending of the movie, so if you’re terrified of spoilers, look away. However, I can’t imagine that the knowledge of the conclusion will ruin the experience for anyone.

After some provocative events happen, the film ultimately concludes with shots of Dap as he runs around campus, yells “wake up!” and rouses everyone. The movie finally stops after Dap and Julian stand together; Fishburne looks into the lens and utters, “Please - wake up.”

When I see this scene, all I can think of is that Lee should have dropped a cow. That’s a method that was used on Saturday Night Live when they couldn’t come up with a conclusion to a skit. At an appropriate time, a fake cow would fall from the ceiling and that would end the piece; it made no sense, but it covered their lack of conclusion. Lee could have used a similar device.

Despite the many negatives against it, SD actually provides a fairly interesting experience because it’s something different. Not only do we see a world that’s largely unknown to non-blacks, but we also find someone willing to urge African-Americans to settle their differences among themselves. At times it seems like black leaders and others are so eager to pin all of their race’s problems on whites, authority and other people that they refuse to acknowledge the divisiveness at home. Lee shines a bright light on the stupidity of these arguments and many other needlessly antagonistic aspects of blacks relationships with each other.

Nowhere does Lee condemn a group more than he does the black fraternities. Although I’m largely with him on this point, I think his portrayal of these organizations was too one-sided. Essentially Lee shows all of the harmful aspects of the fraternities but doesn’t demonstrate anything positive about them. Frankly, I’ve always thought fraternities - black, white, or whatever - were silly, and the excessive nastiness of the pledging process never made much sense to me; to have to debase yourself so just to join some little club is dopey. Nonetheless, there must be something positive about these groups other than the fact they seem to make it easier for members to meet women, and Lee should have balanced his viewpoint.

As I already mentioned, virtually all of Lee’s films have flaws, and School Daze is probably more erratic than most. From the lack of a story and a focus to largely weak acting and characters, the movie’s a bit of a mess. Nonetheless, it does provoke thoughts and offer a look at a side of life unseen by most of us, and those aspects make it worth a look.

The DVD:

School Daze appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen side was rated for this review. Although the movie displayed some minor concerns, as a whole it looked quite good.

For the most part, sharpness seemed clear and accurate. Some wider shots showed moderate softness, but these occasions remained in the minority. Most of the film appeared nicely detailed. Moiré effects and jagged edges showed no concerns. Print flaws were minor but they cropped up on occasion. I saw a few nicks, some speckles and grit, and a little grain, but no more significant defects like tears, blotches, scratches or hairs could be seen.

Colors generally seemed nicely bright and bold, with tones that appeared accurate and solid. At times, some hues looked slightly oversaturated, especially when we see red light; those instances came across as somewhat heavy. However, most colors were strong.

Black levels also looked deep and rich, but contrast could be a little weak and shadow detail was a bit thick. Some low light situations were somewhat difficult to discern. The film also used some diffused sunlight that made a few scenes look murky; for example, the shots in the Kentucky Fried Chicken showed these concerns. However, these issues - plus others, like the golden tint on the film’s climax - were clearly stylistic choices and not problems with the transfer. Ultimately I found School Daze to offer an attractive image.

The film also provided a very solid Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. This mix showed its age but it largely seemed quite positive. The soundfield stuck fairly strongly to the forward channels, where it offered very good separation of music; the score and songs seemed vividly spread across the speakers. Effects also showed nice breadth in the front at times, and the imagery integrated acceptably well. The surrounds mainly bolstered the score, and they did so nicely; some effects also came from the rears, but these were a minor component.

Audio quality appeared slightly dated but it was generally strong. Dialogue showed some thinness but speech largely sounded fairly natural and distinct, with no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were also a little flat, but they seemed fairly clean and accurate without distortion. Music worked best, as the score and the songs appeared acceptably bright and clear, plus they featured decent low end. The bass could sound a bit loose, but it seemed pretty deep for a mix of this era. All in all, the soundtrack worked very well for its material.

School Daze contains one enticing supplement, but unfortunately it’s a dog. We get a running audio commentary from Spike Lee. This is a screen-specific affair, which means we hear lots of statements that tell us who the actors are. Spike also adds gems such as “the character I play is called ‘Half-Pint’”. Thanks, Spike - what an insightful bit of information! Lee seems to be under the impression none of us have ever seen the movie.

To be fair, he occasionally adds some interesting tidbits, such as the fact the production was booted from Morehouse College three weeks into the shoot. However, such morsels are rare. Most of the commentary offers silence, though Lee also occasionally laughs at his work. Early in the track, he tells us he hasn’t watched the movie in years, and I get the impression he barely remembers it. While the commentary improves slightly as it continues, it never becomes consistently interesting, and it remains a dull disappointment.

In addition to this track, we find a few other minor extras. We get the usual borderline-useless “Talent Files”, with listings for Lee, Tisha Campbell, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Branford Marsalis, and Bill Nunn. The entries include very basic biographical details plus filmographies but nothing else. We then get trailers for Boyz In the Hood and Poetic Justice - did the folks at CTS confuse Spike Lee with John Singleton? - plus some brief but decent production notes in the DVD’s booklet.

After the rousing success of his first film, She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee went through his sophomore slump with School Daze. However, despite a number of flaws, the movie has enough going for it to merit a viewing; it’s inconsistent but provocative. The DVD offers generally solid picture and sound but disappoints in the supplements department with a few basics and a fairly bad audio commentary from Lee. School Daze merits a rental for anyone interested in the subject or the director’s early work.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top