“Wake Up!” and stay woke: “Night Flight Goes To The Movies” with Spike Lee’s “School Daze”

By on November 24, 2017

In this special episode of “Night Flight Goes to the Movies,” which originally aired on February 20, 1988, we took a look at two new movies, including Spike Lee’s School Daze, based on a screenplay he’d developed while still enrolled in film school classes at NYU. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

Lee’s School Daze had just debuted in theaters on February 12, 1988, the weekend before our episode of “Night Flight” aired, but the somewhat controversial and critically-maligned film already had a lot of moviegoers talking about it.

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The off-beat musical comedy about black class warfare was set during homecoming weekend at Mission College, a fictional historically black university (HBCU) whose school motto is “Uplift the Race.”

Everyone at Mission is exciting about homecoming, the football game and parties, but discord still runs high on campus, and all of the romances, relationships, college rituals and rivalries form the basis for a couple of entwined plotlines.

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Laurence Fishburne stars as the Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap, the voice of conscience on campus, who leads anti-apartheid demonstrations encouraging the students and inept school administrators to champion institutional divestment with companies tied with South African businesses.

Dap is largely successful getting a few of his frat buddies (“DaFellas”) to fight for his beliefs, but many of the students don’t want to risk being expelled for fully partaking in an anti-apartheid movement.

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Dap’s main beefs are with Julian “Big Brother Almighty” Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito), who wants to strengthen the Greek system with his elitist Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity.

Spike Lee’s “Half-Pint,” Dap’s cousin, is a Gamma frat pledge who has had his head shaved and is subjected to numerous petty humiliations in order to “fit in” with his Gamma brothers.

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Meanwhile, black students are also clashing over issues of colorism and hair texture bias.

Lee’s screenplay deals with the diversity of the student body and their petty differences that he felt were keep black Americans from being a more unified people, pointing out the prejudices within their own race.

In the short interview at the beginning of the episode, Lee tells Night Flight: “The thread that runs throughout all of School Daze is the class color schism in the black community.”

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Read more about Spike Lee’s School Daze below.

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Atlanta-born and Brooklyn-raised Lee depicts this “schism” as a rift between two groups: the affluent, lighter-skinned, straighter-haired “Wannabes” (as in ”wanna be better than me”) and, in Lee’s own words, the less-affluent “nappy-haired, dark-skinned Jigaboos.”

The Wannabes — members of the sister organization the “Gamma Rays,” led by Tisha Campbell’s Jane Toussaint — are convinced the Jigaboos are just jealous.

They sing, “Don’t you wish you had hair like this?/Then the boys would give you a kiss.”

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During production, Lee split up the two camps of actors playing the Wannabes (some of them wearing blue contact lenses) and the Jigaboos, housing them in different hotels in order to help create even more visible tension on-screen.

The outrageous tune “Straight and Nappy” — written by Spike’s father, Bill Lee, and performed like a scene in a 1940s-era Hollywood musical, with choreography by Fame‘s Otis Sallid — is one of School Daze‘s highlights.

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The Wannabees performing “Straight & Nappy,” which incorporates hand-held fans showing the face of actress Hattie McDaniel

Spike Lee’s first film, the sex comedy She’s Gotta Have It, had made Island Pictures more than $7 million against its minuscule budget of just $175,000, but Island weren’t interested in financing Lee’s next feature, which was originally titled It’s Homecoming.

Lee then brought the project to Columbia Pictures, who as of April of 1988 would be distributing 1987’s Best Picture Oscar-winner The Last Emperor.

Columbia took a gamble on School Daze, upping Lee’s budget to $6.5 million, even though they already knew his radical ideas about setting a modern-day musical in and around a fictitious white-financed HBCU — where the student body debates identity politics — was going to create controversy.

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Lee (front and center) and the Gamma Phi Gamma recruits mug it up with Tisha Campbell (far right) on the set in Atlanta

Production began on the campus of one of Lee’s own alma maters, Atlanta’s Morehouse College.

However, after three weeks, Lee and his cast and crew were kicked off campus by then-president Hugh Morris Gloster, who said he didn’t appreciate hearing the language Lee’s characters were using about people of color, and School Daze did not, to his mind, represent his college in a positive light.

Lee wasn’t allowed to film on any of the campuses affiliated with Morehouse either — including Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College — so he finished filming at Atlanta University instead.

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Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (top) behind the camera, with director Spike Lee barking commands into a megaphone. Dickerson had met Lee in the fall of ’79 at NYU’s film school.

Towards the end of the film, the students — who have sleepwalking through their lives on campus — begin to realize that they should be setting aside their own petty concerns and focusing instead on the bigger picture of addressing national and even global issues and problems that could have an ever greater affect on them and what they’d be able to accomplish after they graduate.

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School Daze famously ends with Dap ringing a bell on the school’s main lawn, and yelling at the students to “Wake up!”

We’re to understand that his request is figurative as much as it is literal, and it is just as viable today as it was in 1988 (as we’re sure you already know, the contemporary political term “woke” has been a big part of the recent Black Lives Matter movement’s lexicon).

Watch this early 1988 episode of “Night Flight Goes to the Movies” on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.