2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘School Daze’ (Spike Lee, 1988)


Identity politics reign in Spike Lee’s 1988 film, School Daze, a production set at the all-black Mission College. Borrowing the tropes from classical Hollywood musicals, early exploitation cinema (which was largely focused on troubled youth) and the popularity of the college raunch comedy, Lee subverts the values of the dominant social ethics and reaches into the heart of artifice ripping on the whitewashed legacy of popular cinema. As a genre film, School Daze can be boiled down to college rivalries — different groups separated as much by ideology as they are by shadeism. Using the frankness of the musical genre, tensions that usually hang below the surface suddenly become the text rather than the subtext. Questions of identity reign in School Daze. What does it mean to be black? What is a real man? What use is an all black college in an integrated society?


As much as there is to unpack in this film, for the purpose of this column, female sexuality will be explored, as the role of woman is deeply connected with the perception of masculinity in this cinematic world. As ambitious as the women in School Daze are, time and time again, they are objectified or mistreated by men. There are different layers, some are common misunderstandings, wrought with a certain degree of possessiveness. Dap (Laurence Fishburne) and Rachel’s (Kyme) relationship is wrought with compromise and negotiations. Dap, dealing with his own conflicted identity as an activist, can be judgemental. Outside the bedroom, he speaks a big game, but one on one, he has an impulse to control his girlfriend, treating her like a political wife rather than a human being. Kyme has the strength to stand up to him, but the tension of Dap’s desire to own and control her sometimes seems insurmountable. Yet, the way Lee portrays their sexual relationship stands among the sexiest scenes in cinema — often bathed in cool light, their passion and respect for each other is palpable. In those moments, they are connected body and mind.


Then there is the question of virginity as Half-Pint (Spike Lee) is pledging to become a member of The Gamma Ray fraternity. As the organization boasts to only welcome in “real men,” the question of Half-Pint still having his v-card is a sore-spot. Real men make love to women, and since Half-Pint is already, well… half-sized, the demand that he doubles down on masculinity is needed. In these sequences, women are seen as prizes to be won. “Do you love me? Do you really love Gamma Phi Ray? Well, you’re going to have to prove it.” Leading his girlfriend (Tisha Campbell-Martin as Jane) by the hand, Dean Big Brother Almighty aka Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), president of the Gammas, offers her up to Half-Pint as a prize. She cries as she’s led to the “bone room,” where reluctantly Half-Pint takes what is given to him. An incredibly loaded sequence, it veers from tragedy to comedy — sometimes uncomfortably. Jane is cast off; she is rejected, shamed and lost, and her sorrow echoes through the rest of the film like an unsettled ghost.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


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