Spike Lee’s School Daze is sort of his answer to John Hughes’ white, suburban high school films that dominated the teen culture of the 1980’s. Granted, Lee’s film takes place in college, not high school, but it similarly deals with the various complications of being young and coming-of-age. The film is also semi-autobiographical as it depicts what college life was like for Spike Lee while he attended Morehouse College, an all-black, all-male college located in Atlanta. School Daze marked Spike Lee’s second full-length feature film and it was a preview of the themes and style that would define Lee’s filmography in the coming years.

School Daze is a musical-comedy that’s set in a fictional all-black college called Mission College (it stands for Lee’s alma mater, Morehouse College). This is an ensemble film that follows a couple of characters who represent different aspects of Lee’s presumed experience in college. One of the main characters is Dap (Laurence Fishburne), a driven political activist whose devotion to the black cause borders on a near hatred for light-skinned blacks. On the opposite side of the spectrum is his cousin Half-Pint (Spike Lee), who spends most of the film getting hazed so he can join the Gamma Ray fraternity, which is run by Julian (Giancarlo Esposito). The film explores unique issues that affect black colleges like the tension between self-hating blacks and those who embrace their race and culture. The story is told through comedy and musical numbers, which I believe is the first and only time Spike Lee has dabbled in the musical genre.

I have been a big supporter of Spike Lee’s work ever since I saw his breakthrough 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. Not every film has impressed me, but even the ones that haven’t have offered something original, thought-provoking, or controversial. Few directors working today can rightfully call themselves ‘maverick’ filmmakers and, in fact, I can’t think of anyone other than Spike Lee who can perfectly fit this description.

With School Daze, however, you can tell Lee was still trying to find his voice, which he did in a huge way the following year with Do the Right Thing. As a result, School Daze is an uneven project that works effectively at times and falters other times. I was a little unsure in the beginning how the musical numbers would turn out, but I was surprised to see that not only did they work, but they are among the best scenes in the movie. In particular, the Broadway-style faceoff between the “Wannabes” and the “Jigaboos” inside a hair salon has a catchy tune and a nicely choreographed performance.

The performances in this film are passable. They’re at the level of quality you would expect from a green director making his first indie movie. I don’t mean to disparage the performances here in any way or deride Spike Lee’s direction, but Lee was new to the game as were most of the actors in this movie and they all did the best they were capable of doing at the time. Not surprisingly, the best performance here is given by Laurence Fishburne (he’s credited as ‘Larry Fishburne’). He looks older than your typical college student, but thats barely noticeable and Fishburne delivers a thoughtful and engaging portrayal of a militant black activist. I like that Lee didn’t turn Fishburne’s character into a stereotypical activist who lives and cares only for promoting his cause. Fishburne is conflicted between his ideals and goals and the expectations of his friends and lover. He reminded me of an angrier version of this character played by Ice Cube in John Singleton’s Higher Learning.

For anyone who grew up watching 1980’s sitcoms, there are a lot of familiar faces in School Daze. It seems like half the cast of A Different World is in this, but really its just Kadeem Hardison and the beautiful Jasmine Guy. Tisha Campbell-Martin plays a major role in this film as Julian’s sorority girlfriend. You may remember Tisha from the 90’s show Martin. Many of the actors here have also performed in later Spike Lee films (Do the Right Thing features many of the actors here). One special appearance is by a young Samuel L. Jackson, who was still 6 years away from giving us his career-defining role of Jules in Pulp Fiction.

School Daze suffers from a film-school production feel. Some of this is attributable to the low-budget of the movie and how dated it feels. As I said before, Lee was still trying to find his voice and here he seems to experiment with different genres (comedy, musical, drama) to find that voice. As with all Spike Lee movies, there is a political and social message in this movie. Lee’s message is more generalized as compared to his later films. Here he presents us with the basic theme that will run throughout his career. In later films, Lee has managed to focus on different aspects of that theme.

School Daze is not representative of Spike Lee’s best work (for that see Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Clockers). However, its still a remarkable movie for someone of his experience at the time. Lee emerged as a loud and prominent voice in American cinema and he continues to stand at the forefront of controversy with his films and documentaries.