More than 30 years later, Spike Lee’s “School Daze” still teaches

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Personal attributes such as hair texture, skin color and masculinity never stay private when someone else points them out and makes a judgement in regard to them. That is one idea that can be derived from Spike Lee’s sometimes funny, sometimes emotionally harrowing and music-rich film, “School Daze.”

Why “School Daze” by Spike Lee still matters

Like any film that is 31 years old, there are ideas that do not age well in “School Daze.” Rather, the ideas have new names, and when their old names are used on film or elsewhere, they sound foreign or insulting to audiences.

Take for example the idea of “good” and “bad” hair. The topic is so important to the women in the film that they are allowed an entire song and dance segment on the subject. Each “side” (think “West Side Story” with it choreographed fights set in an expansive beauty salon) shares the attributes of her hair type or what they consider the detraction of the hair type found on the opposite side. The insults are hurled in verse set to a very fast, jazz beat. The women get to show off their dancing skills, too.

The hair salon scene is memorable, but would likely not happen today. These days, the idea of “good hair” and “bad hair” is taboo. Now, black American women have a system to catalog their natural hair. Natural hair is embraced, not ridiculed (in large part) and so-called “good hair” is considered that which grows from the scalp.

But what the film does get right is that a number of black women spend a lot of time basing their worth on their hair type.

The film, set at a fictional historically black college, depicts scenarios and ideologies that were alive and well when the film was made. Starring Spike Lee, Laurence Fishburne,  Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell and Jasmine Guy, “School Daze” had enough star power to make audiences pay attention.

Another idea championed by the film is the purpose of Greek Life. Meaning, are fraternities and sororities worth the time and effort? Under Lee’s direction, a critical look is taken of the practice. The spin on fraternities takes a dark turn when Lee’s character, (the nerdy cousin of Fishburne’s socially conscious character) does a morally questionable deed to get into his desired fraternity. In the age of #MeToo, the scene, including Campbell’s treatment before and after, makes for awkward viewing.

The whole point of the film seemed to be to make viewers more aware. Fishburne spends the whole film telling people to wake up. At the end, when all the students line up on the courtyard, Fishburne addresses the audience, to make sure everyone is awake. In contemporary times, we have the word “woke” to use to indicate someone who is aware of the issues. However, a person could argue that heavy topics are often best leveraged by frivolity.

When the music onscreen wasn’t feisty, energetic jazz, or pop/r&b sung by Campbell, Guy and others, the song “Da Butt” played at a homecoming event. In fact, the original performer E.U. was there, complete with horn-playing band members. The dance moves were indicative of the time, and it was one of the only times, the movie strays from jazz.

“School Daze” helps audiences remember how far American society had to improve to arrive where we are now. Granted, the level of “woke” is not ideal, but it has improved.

For all of its big ideas, there are funny moments, especially when Lee deadpans his desire to be a “Gamma Man.” It is difficult to tell if he really wants it, or if he wants to sound like he wants it.

Thirty-one years on, “School Daze” proves that it is still engaging.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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