| by Justin Thomas |
I know about Spike Lee because of Nike and the New York Knicks, but his body of work was completely unknown to me and would have remained so if not for Samuel L. Jackson appearing in School Daze. If I’m ashamed of having not seen a Spike Lee movie it’s more about having missed an important filmmaker’s body of work than not doing everything possible to understand racial relations in the United States, but if I knew his films inside out I would certainly have a more clear understanding of his ideas about race relations.
Why was I surprised black Americans aren’t unified in “this is only what it can mean to be a black American?” There is no magic bullet for what it means to be a white American. Class, education, sex, heritage and even appearance divide white Americans. Why would it be any different for black Americans? Or Jewish Americans? Or Asian Americans? The most striking aspect of Lee’s message in School Daze, for me, is the question of black America and white America is not and can never be so simple because there’s no such thing as black America.
Samuel L. Jackson as Leeds works in the class issue when School Daze takes the opportunity to show the college kids from Mission College interacting with the townies, credited here as the Local Yokels. The college kids take jobs away from the people who live there year round, who were born and raised there, and Leeds takes issue with it. And he has a point, one that Laurence Fishburne’s character, Dap, understands and one that makes Dap think differently about his message. When Dap finally gets to the place where he’ll look to the camera and say “wake up” it’ll be partially because Leeds helped him get there. Sam plays Leeds as confrontational but not threatening, which he can do. Or maybe that’s what he does: play roles as confrontational but not threatening, which makes it even more shocking when he decides to put a cap in someone’s ass. He threatens to do just that in School Daze.
School Daze might suffer from trying to do too much. There are so many characters, so many moving parts and so many ideas it’s probably too short and too haphazard to do them all justice. An example: Half Pint essentially disappears for huge blocks of the movie and it’s necessary to understand what he’s going through as his pledge season nears its end for that story’s conclusion and how it affects Dap to be earned. The relationship between Dap and Julian, clearly one of respect and animosity, could have been the entire movie but all that’s shown is them being unwilling to set aside the respect and just go at each other’s throats. I wanted more of Dap and Julian, and I wanted the movie to be better constructed to prevent the need for me to connect the dots on my own. There are structural problems to the story and I will be interested to see whether subsequent Lee films address them.
There are moments where School Daze cuts through the heaviness of the subject with well-executed, if not entirely well-timed, humor. Lee uses a musical number inspired by the Jets-Sharks rumble to illustrate differences between two groups of co-eds. When Dap and Julian get in each other’s face, the president of the student government steps in to calm the waters and Dap and Julian find common ground in screaming at him before understanding they should back down. Ossie Davis gives the best football coach inspirational speech I’ve ever seen because of its honesty; four consecutive homecoming losses mean the coach wants the players to think about their school, their pride, their families and their girlfriends while they’re playing, but he also wants them to think about his employment status.
Two movies into the experiment and I’m no closer to figuring out Sam Jackson, but I’ve also seen two movies I’d never have seen if not for the experiment. School Daze is nowhere near a perfect film and I’m uncertain whether I’d say it’s particularly good from a filmmaking perspective. But it’s got ideas, good ideas worth discussing and understanding, and it is vastly superior to the Ben Affleck movie Glory Daze. As such, School Daze is the best movie to ever use the word “daze” in its title, and that’s something.