Sunday, April 21, 2013

School Daze and a Ramble About Racism

Earlier this week I saw Spike Lee's film School Daze for the first time. I'm not much of a Spike Lee fan, but having fairly recently seen and completely re-evaluated my opinion of Do the Right Thing, I saw this was on cable and decided to check it out. I'd not seen any of Lee's pre-Do the Right Thing work before, but now I  was curious to see how he developed as a filmmaker leading up to Do the Right Thing, which I once uneasily dismissed but now easily consider one of the greatest films ever made.

School Daze was surprising. On one level it's a silly campus comedy about getting laid and frat rivalries and losing the homecoming game. But right underneath, there's so much going on, and what was really fascinating to me was that there was subject matter being addressed that I had never seen addressed in a film before. The film takes place at an all-black college, and there's a serious discussion about whether or not there is still a need for all-black colleges in an integrated society. The film touches on a kind of racism that I don't see discussed much in American filmmaking, which centers on complexion and straightness of hair. There's a lot of talk about what makes a black person "black enough." Laurence Fishburne's character is leading a movement to get the school to divest itself of investments in Apartheid South Africa, with a heavy implication that the health of the black community in America is implicitly measured by how involved that community is in what happens in Africa; Giancarlo Esposito tells him to his face that he's American and should worry about America instead of acting like black Americans owe Africa anything simply because their ancestors came from there.

The film touches on black sexism in a surprisingly shocking way; frankly, I was also shocked because I consider Spike Lee a director who participates in sexism more than actually being appalled by it. It even touches on how townies relate to students in one great scene with Samuel L. Jackson as a resident who hates the presence of the students, essentially calling them uppity and reminding them that no matter how educated they are, they'll still be niggers. Laurence Fishburne's weary-but-adamant "You're not niggers!" is a perfect line-reading; he's tired of this fight, but it's too important to let go of.

What's really ingenious about this film, too, is its rhythm. There are musical numbers in the film; one of them, a number about the tension between black women who straighten their hair and black women who don't, is especially brilliant because it allows the argument to be heard while dissolving the tension that was so charged as the scene began. But more than the musical numbers, there's also the soundtrack, the dialogue, a certain cadence to some of the spoken lines, dependent on comic timing and the occasional rhyming dialogue, and the editing that creates these rhythmic patterns that keep the film moving through its many characters and situations, touching on issue after issue while not losing any of its humor or urgency. It never becomes dry, or a lecture. And it is true that the film doesn't resolve anything or offer any solutions, either, but how can it? Much like Do the Right Thing, School Daze needs to raise its points just to get people to finally talk about them. You can't solve something you've barely addressed.

I haven't really been able to get School Daze out of my mind since I watched it. I wasn't quite sure what exactly it was that felt so different, so as I usually do when I'm critically mulling something over this much, I consulted Roger Ebert's review. He pegged it in the first line: "the black characters seem to be relating to one another, instead of to a hypothetical white audience." That was it: there's no white presence at all in the film. No white characters, no white point of view, no imagined white viewer. There's no attempt at all to interpret black campus life for a white audience. It's not interested in making things comfortable and conforming to white expectations of the black middle class.

It made me remember what things were like after Do the Right Thing came out. It was about that time that the media was talking about black people and "their" movies. We had "mainstream" movies, and "their" movies. And "their" movies were always depicted as being angry and unsatisfied, and that was reported on with this tone of fear. It was strange. When Do the Right Thing came out I was 13 and living in a predominantly white suburb. I didn't have much experience with black people other than depictions in the media and basically one black student that had been in my classes forever.

In 1988, The Last Temptation of Christ came out and that was the first time I was really aware that a movie could create so much anger and generate so much controversy. I didn't understand how the mere fact of the existence of this movie could make some people so angry. And when Do the Right Thing came out, it happened again. People were angry and scared. I saw so many news reports about it that basically boiled down to this (if we're just being honest): "I'm white and scared to death that this will remind black people how oppressed they are and then they'll murder all the white people." That was basically it. The emergence of a new black cinema immediately after had people scared. I remember when Boyz N the Hood came out and there was this sense that we should all be scared to go see it in the theater because black people would get angry and shoot you or some such bullshit. Every time a New Jack City or a Juice or a Malcolm X came out, there was always this weird sensibility in the air that I'd get from the adults in my life or in the media that the more movies black people had that reminded them racism exists (as if they had forgotten), the more dangerous it was for "mainstream" society.

Does anyone else remember this being a thing? It was like a weird game of "Is this going to be the movie that ignites racial war in the US?" It's like white people are fine with racism existing but the second black people have a problem with it, race relations are "dangerous." That's what I remember thinking at the time. The overreaction to Do the Right Thing and Boyz N the Hood totally changed my way of thinking about the world, because in those overreactions I could see the weird fear and dishonesty that caused them in the first place.

School Daze doesn't try and explain black middle class life to a possible white viewer, and that's one of the greatest strengths of the film. It's unconcerned with justifying itself. It's a bold, honest, frank, revealing movie disguised as a campus comedy. That it exists at all is, even 25 years later, a triumph.


Roger Owen Green said...

Well, yes, it was a "thing", that black people are gonna riot because this movie or that.
Glad you (thru Ebert) recognized that phenomenon about the white POV. A couple movies, both featuring Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom and Glory, were criticized in some circles for being largely black movies yet beholden to white perspective.
And hell, yeah, I've mentioned the whole not being black enough this calendar year. In our local (Albany, NY) paper, there was a story about some young black woman harassed by the white folks at a country music concert; my belief is that she'd get grief from black people for liking "that kind of music."

SamuraiFrog said...

I used to work with someone at Barnes & Noble who really didn't like Glory for that reason. He was offended that a story about black Civil War soldiers needed to be framed from the Matthew Broderick character's perspective. My co-worker was white, and he explained to me that he felt the makers of the film had done the equivalent of dumbing the film down, "as if I can't be sympathetic to black characters without a white guy telling me when and how I'm supposed to feel." I'd never heard that perspective before then (I was 19); he genuinely felt it insulted his intelligence and his sense of empathy.

Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil said...

Roger Green sent the link to this. I came from a white suburban household of civil rights true believers. We mourned the passing of Martin Luther King, but couldn't understand why people need a leader to "charge San Juan Hill." It's really the actions of ordinary people who make a difference.

Spike Lee's "Bamboozled," while a flawed film, was still worth watching for its satire on what white AND black America want to see on TV.

"Glory" is a masterpiece. One could not make the movie without Broderick's character, because it would not have been historically accurate, and because that character did have more experience in fighting a war. It's not as simple as "whitie teaching the black man how to shoot," it's more about strategy and his commitment to the troops under his command.

The whole white/black thing is boring me to death. Why doesn't anyone remember we are all from Africa? From the Tigris/Euphrates, the birthplace of humankind? My people migrated to the far north and eventually to America, there to despoil the land and enslave indigenous populations.

Spike Lee has his misogynist streak, but by and large, he and John Sayles are two of my favorite filmmakers. They fly below the radar a lot. They take stands. That's what I want from a movie... unless, of course, it's escapist "blow up aliens," or an unabashed love story.

Thanks for allowing me to post this! And thanks to Roger for hipping me to your blog. Amy Barlow Liberatore, Madison, WI

SamuraiFrog said...

I have a cousin who's been telling me to see Bamboozled for years; she teaches a media class at a community college and shows it to her students. Since I've been reevaluating Spike Lee's work of late, that's one I've really wanted to check out.

I do think John Sayles is a great filmmaker, too. I remember in the pre-internet pre-streaming days having to drive far out of my way to find a theater showing Lone Star. Absolutely worth the drive.