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SCHOOL DAZE

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, March 29, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Spike Lee won his first competitive Oscar (actually three of them) for ‘BlacKkKlansman’ last month, and one of his earlier films — his second feature after ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and just before ‘Do the Right Thing’ — has now received a Blu-ray upgrade from Sony Home Entertainment. Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on May 20, 1988. (And yes, Fishburne was billed as “Larry” not yet “Laurence” in those days.)

Spike Lee has been called “The black Woody Allen,” and indeed his first film — a low-budget feminist comedy called “She’s Gotta Have It” — was rather Allenish in many ways. Lee himself played a supporting role as a Woody Allen-style nerd, and he wrote and directed the picture.

As a follow-up, however, “School Daze” is something else — an all-black cast in a hip, surrealistic semi-musical that delivers a rather heavy-handed message about the evils of racism, sexism and of the problem people have of being generally too judgmental.

The bigger budget shows, with sweeping crane shots and wild, extravagant musical production numbers, not to mention a huge cast and a lot of speaking parts.

“School Daze” has to do with a black college that has trouble finding support from the black community (as explained in heavy-handed “socially relevant” scenes between Joe Seneca and Art Evans in office scenes).

     

Giancarlo Esposito, left, and Larry Fishburne, 'School Daze'

Meanwhile, among the students, the two main factions at the school are the Gammites, a fraternity that spends a lot of time hazing pledges, and followers of Dap Dunlap (Larry Fishburne), those interested in social change — but only if it’s their way.

And there is much time spent on the racist feelings that separate light-skinned blacks from dark-skinned blacks. Some of these scenes are effective, but others use a sledgehammer approach to bring home the message.

As a director Lee shows an affection for “controlled chaos,” with scenes that are filled with action and dialogue, making a point and feeling authentic. But as a writer he exhibits little sense of focus. Scene after scene feels like a skit, and some, such as a moment with Ossie Davis as a coach warming up his team in the locker room, seem as if they’ve dropped in from another movie.

     

Individually, these scenes are well structured and even the aforementioned moment with Davis is effective, but overall the film feels too loose, all over the map, with spoofery and slapstick and hard-hitting satire, and even a touch of tragedy, overlapping without enough foundation.

That’s especially true when the musical numbers take over. The song and dance at the hairdresser’s is fun but it seems out of sync with the rest of the movie. And the movie itself is too long.

The performances are all excellent, though, with special kudos to Fishburne, Tisha Campbell and Lee himself. And the film’s message is certainly timely, despite its lack of subtlety (especially at the end).

“School Daze” is definitely a mixed bag and certainly not for all tastes, but there is some worth here and evidence that Spike Lee is a talent to reckon with. The film is rated R for sex, nudity and profanity, all in abundance, along with some mild violence.