School Daze (1988 with Laurence Fishburne and Spike Lee)

USA / 1988

Director and Writer: Spike Lee
Cast: Laurence Fishburne, Spike Lee, Giancarlo Esposito

When American independent cinema made its triumphant return to form, and lucrative success, in the mid-’80s, Spike Lee was at the forefront. Famously made for little or no money, the (mostly) black-and-white sex comedy She’s Gotta Have It was a milestone in hit-and-run filmmaking before it gained any credentials as a landmark African-American movie.

Success brought resentment, however, and Lee’s full-colour follow-up walked into a backlash it didn’t really deserve. Dismissed as “a black Animal House” or, more alarmingly, a black “Revenge of the Nerds”, School Daze is set on an all-black college campus where there are deep divisions in the student body.

On the one hand there’s Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne), a political idealist who leads demonstrations against the conservative college authorities; on the other, there’s Half Pint (Spike Lee), his down-at-heel cousin, who just wants to have a good time and be accepted by the in-crowd.

Between the two, Lee uses the film to explore serious clashes in black culture – for instance between the ‘wannabes’ who want to be white and the ‘jigaboos’ who proudly claim their heritage. Interspersed with dance routines, the film follows Half Pint’s initiation into student life, balancing serious political insight and drama with fantasy scenes and ribald comedy.

It was a bold and showy attempt to fuse genres that enraged his critics. “Tell an inexperienced director he’s a genius and you create Dr Frankenstein,” sniffed The Washington Post. But for all its flaws, School Daze is one of those fascinating muddles that litter every great director’s CV. Yes, it’s messy and, no, it doesn’t always work, but Lee’s mind is firing in directions that aren’t on anyone else’s map. White critics didn’t like the way it mixed serious issues with comedy while black audiences felt uncomfortable with Lee’s satiric jabs at their own internal prejudices. Both camps have a point, but School Daze is an ambitious attempt to tackle taboos that have rarely been covered before or since.

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