Spike Lee's "School Daze" Still Holds Up

Spike Lee’s second feature film, 1988’s School Daze, is often overlooked in the discussion of Lee’s filmography, sandwiched as it is between his cultural and cinematic behemoths She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing. However, School Daze explores critical issues of black college life, issues that remain relevant to this day and ones Lee continued exploring in his illustrious career as a filmmaker. A musical comedy shouldering dark, serious storylines, the film balances a variety of contrasting themes, plotlines, and tones.

School Daze boasts an immensely talented cast of actors, most of whom have had long–lived careers since it came out. Protagonist Dap Dunlap is played by Laurence Fishburne, best known for The Matrix, and his campus rival and antagonist Julian Eaves is played by Giancarlo Esposito, best known for Breaking Bad.

Spoilers ahead!

The film takes place at the fictional Mission College, a historically black college in Atlanta. It tackles issues of classism, elitism, social advocacy, global politics, frat culture, and integration faced by its all–black cast of characters. The movie starts with Dap protesting against apartheid in South Africa — he is eventually threatened with expulsion by the college board, who want him to stop advocating that their benefactors divest their money from South Africa. Julian, meanwhile, wants nothing to do with African politics and is mainly focused on the reputation of his frat, Phi Gamma Phi.

One of the most prevalent issues tackled by School Daze is colorism and how it’s perceived by different members of the black community. As a South Asian, I’ve dealt with colorism in my own culture; lighter skin is preferred as a sign of beauty, while dark skin is seen as a problem to fix. There is systemic bias against dark skin, and consumerist culture benefits from it through the many products advertised for their supposed skin–lightening qualities. However, what’s so special about School Daze is that it shows both sides of the issue and focuses on how it’s a conflict within a marginalized community.

Dap’s girlfriend Rachel and Julian’s girlfriend Jane are at odds with each other because of their differing views on black hair politics and colorism. Jane is light–skinned; most of the girls in her sorority are the same, and they all straighten their hair. Jane herself is blonde and blue–eyed thanks to dye and contacts. Rachel and her friends are all dark–skinned and rock natural afros and hairstyles. Rachel’s group accuses Jane’s of aspiring to be white; Jane’s group slings ethnic slurs right back. The first song in the movie features the two groups of women dancing and singing at each other. The upbeat, fun musical number juxtaposes the incredibly real and hurtful way the women weaponize hair politics, colorism, and racism against each other.

One of the best parts of the film was its ambivalence. This isn’t a movie interested in just saying “colorism is bad” or “racism is abhorrent.” Instead, it wants the viewer to think critically about every perspective of an argument. Inarguably, Dap is the protagonist, and Julian is the closest to being an antagonist (though he isn’t responsible for all of the conflict in the film.) Dap is generally a good person, while Julian repeatedly verbally and physically abuses his pledges.

However, Dap definitely has major character flaws — his own girlfriend accuses him of being colorist toward light–skinned black people and judgmental toward black people who don’t hold the same views or methodologies he does. Dap’s friends are unwilling to risk expulsion to protest apartheid as many of them are the first person in their families to attend college and they aspire to have lucrative jobs. There’s no wrong in this conflict; of course protesting apartheid is noble, but Dap’s friends aren’t wrong to pursue their goals.

Dap may struggle with colorism against light–skinned black people, but Jane’s frat throws racial slurs around at Rachel and the other dark–skinned members of the student body, showing a vile colorist perspective. Similarly, Julian, for all his wrongs, makes the relevant comment that he is an African American, and that is an identity of its own, different from being African. Again, both sides of the debate over black identity have their merits. Frat culture is also exposed and criticized in the film; however, Rachel wants to join a sorority, and the film briefly considers the sense of community and positive elements in Greek culture.  

Even while tackling serious topics, School Daze remains funny, justifying its classification as a comedy. Though some scenes in the middle of the film lag, the jokes and extended bits definitely land. The musical numbers are also catchy and a great accompaniment to the scenes in the film. However, the musical comedy nature of the film only highlights how dark some of its plotlines really are.

Along with the race–related issues, School Daze explores how problematic and violent frat culture, pledging, and hazing can be. Some of the scenes with Phi Gamma Phi’s pledges are funny as they’re forced to memorize ritualistic titles and dances. However, the pledges are also verbally harassed and physically punished in the pursuit of becoming “real men.”

Still, the portrayal of frat culture remains pretty hyperbolic and absurd, until the end of the film — when one of the pledges is rewarded by getting to have sex with Jane, who is clearly forced into complying. Suddenly, the entrenched sexism, toxic masculinity, and rape culture of the frat is front and center. Jane, who has remained a confident mean girl throughout the film, is raped and emotionally tormented by the very frat she worships.

For all its relevant points, School Daze is a controversial watch. It’s definitely reflective of the historical moment in which it was created. It was groundbreaking for its time, but has elements that are considered highly problematic now. Women are incredibly objectified, especially the light–skinned members of Jane’s frat — often, they’re regarded as trophies, sexual objects, or constant helpers. Though the film looks at this sexist culture negatively, it doesn’t decry or feature it as strongly as it should have. “Boys will run your life. Just give them one chance,” Rachel’s roommates warn her; but she still ends up with Dap at the end anyway.

Additionally, there’s a level of homophobia and deeply offensive homophobic language used in the film, though sparingly. Being queer seems to be the worst thing men can accuse each other of being in a culture dominated by toxic masculinity and trenchant heteronormativity.

School Daze may be best known for its last line, when Dap confronts Julian; instead of coming to blows, both turn to the camera and break the fourth wall, and Dap tells the viewer to “Please, wake up.” Considering the BLM movement, the riots protesting police brutality, and the near–decade of political turmoil we are still trying to manage, it’s more critical than ever that we wake up to the issues faced by marginalized people across the world, perhaps starting with our own college campus.