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BOOKS & THE CULTURE FILMMAKER SPIKE LEE Energy and Eternal Delight BY MICHAEL KING SCHOOL DAZE Produced, written, and directed by Spike Lee SPIKE LEE’S GOTTA HAVE IT: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking By Spike Lee New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987 ONE OF THE MOST striking memories of my years as a college teacher is of young black students with fraternity insignia branded into their flesh. The historical irony and incongruity of the image has never left me, and I was painfully reminded of it by an even more vivid image from School Daze: a coed hungrily licking the fraternity brand of her lover. The late James Baldwin was always particularly eloquent concerning the sexual terror and paranoia at the heart of racism: Spike Lee is no Baldwin, at least not yet, but he too is attuned to the sexual politics intricately woven into social hierarchies and peer-group psychology. School Daze is generally lighthearted and satiric in spirit, but its creator is deadly serious about the brutality that passes for solidarity, even within an entirely black landscape. One of the sweet cinematic surprises of 1986 was Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, the feature debut of the young black filmmaker. His film was an intense seriocomic study of a young black woman, “Nola Darling,” for whom lovemaking was not a means to an end, economic or romantic, but a complicated joy in itself. Nola’s various boyfriends one of whom is a stone Brooklyn b-boy played by Spike himself can’t handle her sexual and emotional independence, her taking upon herself the freedom generally considered the natural right of men only. The cinematic result is a surprisingly feminist portrait of a “freak” \(which word translates very roughly from in this context, a woman who has taken control of, and responsibility for, her own Michael King writes frequently for the Observer on books and the arts. He lives in Houston. 18 MARCH 1 1 , 1988 sexual being. She’s Gotta Have It, shot in 16mm on a minuscule budget, made both a good deal of money and a bankable reputation for its fledgling writer-producerdirector, who had emerged from Morehouse College and the NYU film school with apparently a ready vision and the professional determination to match. On the strength of that brilliant eruption, Columbia bankrolled School Daze, Lee’s ambivalent homage to his days at Morehouse, one of the premier black colleges and the model for the “Mission” college of the film. Lee has been talking about this film for some time the conception and at least some of the script predate She’s Gotta Have It but the scale of the production, with its large cast and several big musical numbers, was more than he could raise on his own. Spike has spent Columbia’s money well: School Daze more than lives up to the promise of its predecessor, and Spike Lee has arrived as a major new American filmmaker. Lee’s spirit is in the macaronic tradition of novelist and poet Ishmael Reed, for whom comic plots and masking are the figures within which serious matters are addressed. Lee’s techniques are more straightforwardly realistic, although both his films are highly self-conscious in form and play with the audience’s expectations. Like Reed, he manages to cram a remarkable range of emotions into single scenes, often single images: Mission College, like Nola Darling’s bed, is an arena for farce, melodrama, romance, and potential tragedy. Originally titled Homecoming \(certainly School Daze takes place during homecoming weekend, almost entirely in the social microcosm that is a black college campus. One of the great virtues of black colleges is that they allow their students to enjoy a few years relatively insulated from the crippling racism of the larger society; one of the tragedies of black college life as chronicled by Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, among others is that it often reproduces internally, among the students themselves, the colorstruck savagery of the white world. Lee is comically forgiving of his compatriots, but the world of Mission College is nonetheless a world of unlikely and terrible divisions: between politicized radical students and party-time “Greeks”; between socially oriented hipsters and careerist grinds; between “nappy” haired, dark-skinned blacks and their fairer, “highyellow” couhterparts; and even ‘between students and ‘the local black townspeople, who respond to calls to “brotherhood” with “I ain’t no kin to you.” Lee has divided his mythical campus into two verbally armed camps, each defined by the racialist slur of the other: the “jigaboos” and the The individual dramas of the film occur against this antagonistic backdrop, but the acuteness of Lee’s conception is such that he understands that the two camps, though painfully real, are not really exclusive that they are in fact symbolic of intense battles going on inside the psyches of individual black students. Further, he has not at all forgotten the conflict he addressed so directly in his earlier film: the ongoing war between black men and women. Indeed, the climax of this film turns on the uncertain outcome of that conflict: in the film, as ever in the world, still very much in doubt. LEE’S TOUCH IS LIGHT and generally satiric, and the audience is going to be drawn to this film for laughs. In She’s Gotta Have It, Spike himself provided most of the comic business as Mars Blackmon, who woos Nola with laughter and brazenness. Here he plays “Half-pint,” a fraternity pledge so desperate to make it into “Gamma Phi Gamma” that he will endure any humiliation to that end. The Gammas despise male “virgins,” and Half-pint embarks on a futile quest to find a coed willing to relieve him of his inadequacy. Sexual gamesmanship and courtship rituals are among the film’s central motives; even Half-pint’s cousin Dap \(Larry dedicated to the struggle for black liberation to have time for dalliance, abandons the campus apartheid shantytown when his realize that Dap’s desire for her is at least partly because of the darkness, hence political correctness, of her complexion. Because of the central comic role played iiiiA__istra et