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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/23/01

School Daze
1988 (2001) - Columbia TriStar

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Films of Spike Lee on DVD

School Daze Film Ratings: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A/B+

Specs and Features

121 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary with writer/producer/director Spike Lee, talent files for the cast and crew, 2 theatrical trailers (for Boyz 'n the Hood and Poetic Justice), film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English, French and Spanish (DD 2.0 surround), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

"Wake up!"

Mission College is an all-black school in Atlanta, Georgia, loosely based upon (and partly filmed at) Lee's own alma mater, Morehouse. Wouldn't you know it, black or not, Mission has all the same trials and tribulations found at any other major educational institution in the United States. Politics are big, Greek frat boys rule and girls are broken up into image-based cliques. But because this is a Spike Lee Joint, the politics are what matter most. Laurence Fishburne plays Dap, a student harshly opposed to Mission's participation in financial support to South Africa. He wants it to end, to show South Africa that apartheid will not be tolerated. His cousin, Half-Pint (Lee), is trying to get into the Gammas, Mission's elite Greek frat house lead by Julian (Giancarlo Esposito). Dap pretty much hates Julian, but it appears that they have a history as friends from a time before the frat world changed Julian and world politics changed Dap. That right there is the main story, but another story deals with the conflicting worlds of the girls in Dap's and Julien's lives. Dap seems to have more respect for darker skinned women, while the sorority linked to the Gammas (called the Gamma Rays) are all lighter skinned. The two groups of young women often collide, but it's in a wonderfully retro song-and-dance sequence (entitled "Straight and Nappy") where they get the to root of their hated for each other, calling out names like Jigaboo and Wannabe to one another. It's a pretty impressive sequence, and is one that Lee would have had a hard time doing lightly in this "comedy" if he didn't turn it into a dance number. Anyway, just as the conflict between these characters builds to a boil, the film ends abruptly with Dap calling out for everyone to wake up. From a political slumber? From interracial intolerance? It's not exactly clear. But then again, maybe it is and I'm just looking too deep into it.

The only real problem I have ever had with Lee as a filmmaker is, ironically, the same reason I like filmmaker Stanley Kubrick so much. Kubrick had a tendency to open up his films with so much subtext and symbolism, that whatever you wanted to guess his films were about... you could be right. He told a story and left it to the audience to decide how it affected them. And to an extent, so does Spike Lee. But the problem is, Lee has a real agenda. He has something to say and he's got no pity for those who don't get it. This is more apparent in Do the Right Thing, but the ending of School Daze is so sudden that it's tough to really hazard a guess as to what it all means. And as a white fan of Lee's films, I sometimes feel that it's not even my place to guess. But irrespective of my full understanding of the ending, I really like the characterizations Lee laces this film with, and I like its overall style. Lee was obviously still coming into his own at this point, but you can tell there's a great filmmaker hiding in there.

It's been said that this is Lee's American musical homage, but most of the songs in the film retain a feeling of reality, and there's really only just the one truly "musical" moment. The "Straight and Nappy" sequence is an honest to goodness, "break into song" moment that works so well, I'm looking forward to a time when Lee might actually try his hand at a genuine musical.

School Daze on DVD looks very nice. Some shots are a bit soft, but this was all intentional. Color representation is beautiful and skin tones are spot on. It's pretty damn good looking for a film spread over one side of a single-layered disc. Side A holds the anamorphic widescreen version of the film and Side B is full frame. I don't quite know why Columbia felt anyone would want a full frame transfer of this film on DVD, but if you do... it's there.

Given the importance of the film's music, sound is a critical issue on this DVD. Thankfully, Columbia's delivered a very nice track. It's presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround and works quite well for the film. Dialogue is centered and Bill Lee's score features plenty of ambience in the surround channels. You shouldn't be disappointed.

Now, it's too bad all of Mr. Lee's films can't have a commentary track, because School Daze needs one and, thankfully, has a pretty good one. Most of the questions you have about the film are answered here. Spike's normal talking voice isn't as energetic as some of his on-screen characters, so you occasionally feel like someone was pulling his teeth to get these bits of information out of him. But we get a lot of interesting stuff from him - definitely enough to make the track worth listening to. Rounding out the special features are a group of talent files for the cast and crew and trailers for two of John Singleton's films.

School Daze is an interesting film because, while it has a lot to say, you get the feeling that Lee didn't know exactly how to say it. This could have been a much better film if Lee had reeled it in a little more, but as a look at the origins of a cinematic master, it's pretty breathtaking. And as long as you understand that you're probably not going to get the film's ending, I think you'll enjoy it.

Todd Doogan
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The Films of Spike Lee on DVD

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