Spike Lee’s “School Daze” is the first movie in a long time where the black characters seem to be relating to one another, instead of to a hypothetical white audience. Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” was another, and then you have to go back to films like “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song” in 1970. Although the film has big structural problems and leaves a lot of loose ends, there was never a moment when it didn’t absorb me, because I felt as if I was watching the characters talk to one another, instead of to me.
Most good movies are voyeuristic - we feel as if we’re getting a glimpse of other people’s lives - but most movies about blacks have lacked that quality. They seem acutely aware of white audiences, white value systems and the white Hollywood establishment. They interpret rather than reveal, and even in attacking mainstream white society (as Eddie Murphy does in the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies), they pay homage to it in a backhanded way. “School Daze” couldn’t care less.
What’s surprising is that its revolutionary approach is found in a daffy story about undergraduates at an all-black university. The movie is basically a comedy, with some serious scenes that don’t always quite seem to fit. (It begins with a demonstration against the school’s investments in South Africa, but doesn’t remember to resolve that subject.) It deals with divisions within the student body - between Greeks and independents, and between political activists and kids who just want to get good grades.
And with utter frankness it addresses two subjects that are taboo in most “black movies”: complexion and hair. Lee divides the women on his campus into two groups, the lighter-skinned girls of the Gamma Ray sorority, with their straightened and longer hair, and the darker-skinned independents, with shorter hair or Afros. These two groups call each other the “Wannabes” and the “Jigaboos,” and in a brilliant and startling song-and-dance sequence called “Straight and Nappy,” they express their feelings for each other. Lee’s choice of a musical production number to consider these emotionally charged subjects is an inspiration; there is possibly no way the same feelings could be expressed in spoken dialogue without great awkwardness and pain.