Spike Lee’s second film School Daze (1988) is set in a large Southern town recognizable as Atlanta, though it is never named. It’s set on the campus of a historically black university, Mission University, a place like Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Lee studied. On the one hand, this is an African American version of any number of mainly white films devoted to campus life, such as Animal House (1978) or Back to School (1988) or PCU (1994) or of those awful college films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (Knute Rockne All American, 1940, comes to mind). On the other hand, with its many comic moments, School Daze has a serious purpose: to explore political and cultural divisions in African American life by focusing on a college that is educating future African American leaders. The film begins with a montage of images from the Civil Rights movement. They connect the college campus the film portrays with African American history.
The “Daze” of the title suggests the unreality of college life, and the film spends a good bit of time showing us college students engaged in meaningless chatter about relationships, sex, fraternities, skin color, and hair style. A central musical number is about a dispute between two groups of women who style their hair in different fashions—the light-skinned group favors 80s style hair and the darker skinned group prefers hair in a more revolutionary vein.
The film presents more a pastiche, a montage of scenes from college life, than a coherent plot. A character named Half-pint (Spike Lee) wants to pledge a popular fraternity. He also wants to lose his virginity. His cousin, Dap (Laurence Fishburne), is a would-be revolutionary who wants Mission College to disinvest all its funds from South Africa. Dap hates fraternities and has a serious rivalry with Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), president of Gamma Phi Gamma, the fraternity Half-Pint wants to join. School Daze sees fraternities as irrelevant and destructive. Pledges undergo silly rituals. They are encouraged to feel superior to other students, to abuse women, to feel contempt for people like Dap who want to change the world. You can imagine many of these fraternity members headed for a conformist career in business. It’s not in their interests to seek change in a world that they want to join.
Dap is loud and obnoxious in his ever-present advocacy for the causes he supports and in his hatred of the fraternity Dap wants to join. He is not especially effective as an activist, but Spike Lee as director makes clear that Dap believes fervently in what he believes, and that he, as opposed to Julian or Half-Pint, recognizes that in a world where everyone’s attention is diverted by disagreements over affluence and skin color and hair styles and fraternity memberships, progress won’t occur.
On the night Half-Pint is initiated into Gamma Phi Gamma, Julian orders his girlfriend to sleep with Half-Pint because he can’t have a virgin in his fraternity. She follows his command. When Dap finds out what has happened, he is outraged at his cousin and at Julian. The film ends with his commanding question “Why?” which seems to imply that while these students are whiling away their time on trivial, narcissistic irrelevancies, the world is suffering. Dap’s “Why?” is a call for change of directions and for political action, both in the world at large, but on the campuses of places like Mission College, where future citizens are being educated.
Spike Lee’s method of introducing an array of characters and situations that he gradually interweaves through the course of the film is evident here. School Daze is a major step towards one of his great films, Do the Right Thing (1989). It also paves the way for a number of other films about African American college life, all centered in Atlanta. Drumline (2002; dir. Charles Stone III), ATL (2006; dir. Chris Robinson) and Stomp the Yard (2007; dir. Sylvain White) are examples.