Preceding the feature film this week (though not quite capturing the same era!) was a short entitled Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No (video here), an animated feature by James Blagden which chronicles the well-traveled story of mediocre MLB pitcher Dock Ellis (his career 3.46 ERA would look much nicer in today’s hitter-friendly era) and his remarkable no-hitter of June 12, 1970.
For the audio track, the film uses an interview Ellis gave to NPR shortly before his death in December 2008 at age 63. Though there are those that doubt his story, Ellis always maintained that he was high on LSD (and, simultaneously, benzedrine) when he threw the game of his career.
The feature presentation, brought to us by Malaika, was School Daze (an eaaaarly Spike Lee joint). School Daze takes place over Homecoming weekend at the (fictional) historically black Mission College. At its heart, the film is about conflicts within black culture. It begins with Dap (a young, gap-toothed Laurence Fishburne) leading a rally outside the Mission administration building the day before Homecoming, demanding that the school divest its holdings in South Africa due to the institution of Apartheid.
The rally is disrupted by the pledging activities of Gamma Phi Gamma, a stereotypical fraternity whose concerns revolve more around partying than political activism. Julian, the Gamma chapter president (aka Dean Big Brother Almighty) confronts Dap at the rally – it appears that the two have a history of acrimony, and if I didn’t catch it wrong, in his earlier years Dap pledged GPG and was not selected to join.
It turns out that Dap’s cousin Half-Pint (played by Spike Lee) is one of the pledges, and Dap doesn’t entirely approve. With the conflict between Dap and his political activists and Julian and his partygoers established, School Daze goes on to set up the conflict between their girlfriends’ cliques. Julian’s girlfriend Jane is the leader of the Gamma Rays, a sorority affiliated with GPG which is filled with predominantly light-skinned women. Lee sets up the Gamma Rays as a group that, consciously or unconsciously, “wants to be white” and get tagged with the moniker “the Wannabes”. (Of course, this didn’t quite kick in for me until, at a chapter meeting planning the Homecoming party, Jane asked the student in charge of the music to not include any hip-hop.) At the same time, Dap’s girlfriend Rachel is associated with an unofficial group known as “the Jigaboos”, who revel in black culture.
Then, the movie takes a left turn. In a fantasy sequence apropos of pretty much nothing, the Wannabes and the Jigaboos meet each other at the hair parlor in a musical confrontation reminiscent of the Sharks and the Jets wherein they berate each other on the basis of hair preference. Ah, yes, the classic straight-hair-vs.-nappy-hair scissor fight. It’s an interesting diversion, but it goes on for…at least three minutes too long. I think we got the idea in the first two. In fact, from this point onwards the film repeatedly slips in and out of song and choreography, but it’s somewhat of an anti-musical. Whereas your typical musical uses the songs to advance the story, it seemed to me that School Daze used them more to stall for time, violating the Sidehacker truism “only love pads the film”.
Meanwhile, Dean Big Brother Almighty accuses (correctly, it turns out) Half-Pint of being a virgin, and tells him that in order to successfully pledge GPG, he will have to lose it, and Half-Pint goes about unsuccessfully trying to sweet talk women into helping him out.
Finally, it’s Saturday, and time for the big homecoming game. Following a pregame locker room speech that Knute Rockne would not quite have given comes the game itself. Almost. This is one of my favorite scenes, because Spike Lee assiduously refuses to show us the football field while narrow shots on the bleachers show students cheering and we watch the progress of the game (unfortunately for the Mission team, a blowout) on the scoreboard. Not enough extras or football uniforms, Spike?
Following a scene at the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken where Dap’s crew is confronted by resentful non-college locals including a young Samuel L. Jackson comes the Homecoming party and more film padding. Interestingly, I learned from this film that not only did Vanilla Ice steal his riff from Queen, but he stole his chorus from the black Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which has traditionally used the chant.
Later that evening, Julian, who has grown tired of Jane, cleverly presents her with a dilemma – he instructs her that in order to show her true devotion to him she has to have sex with Half-Pint, and the two are ushered into a private room in the GPG house.
She completes the task, Half-Pint is welcomed into the fraternity, and Julian, in faux distress over Jane cheating on him, breaks up with her. Of course, if she hadn’t done it he’d have broken up with her because she refused to show her devotion. Not sure how she didn’t see that one coming.
Half-Pint, meanwhile, breathlessly rushes over to Dap’s dorm in the middle of the night to give him the news, which Dap reasonably enough is indignant about. He roughly throws Half-Pint out, and in the morning dreams a final scene of marching through the campus yelling at everybody to “wake up”.
It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, but I think it’s obvious that School Daze is an early film. The storytelling is choppy, the characters are often caricatures, and the film can’t quite commit to being a musical and ends up being an ineffectual sort of hybrid. It’s clear that Lee’s sympathies lie with Dap, but the film spends too much time on the shortcomings of others and not enough on Dap’s idealism to make him an effective protagonist – clearly he is the protagonist, but he’s more of a sideline protagonist. His storyline is shallow, and in the end, it’s not really his story.