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SCHOOL DAZE
Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, Kyme, Ossie Davis, Spike Lee
Director:  Spike Lee
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  121 Minutes
Release:  February 1, 2004  

"Please...wake up."

Film ***1/2

School Daze is an eclectic, undisciplined masterpiece of a comedy.  It was writer/director Spike Lee’s second feature film, and serves as his look at a cross section of African American life as represented by a vastly varied group of characters all attending a predominantly black university over homecoming weekend.  The scenarios are funny, wild, unruly, and often thought-provoking.

Dap (Fishburne) is a senior at Mission College…a bright, intelligent young man becoming something of a campus problem because of his outspoken beliefs and demonstrations regarding the schools South African policies and other administrative snafus.  His opposite in the film is Julian (Esposito), aka “Dean Big Brother Almighty”, the president of the school’s Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity.  Julian is less interested in Dap’s causes and more concerned with his own microcosm of existence.  Dap’s cousin, Half-Pint (Lee himself), is trying to pledge into Gamma, and spends most of the film enduring rather embarrassing (and hysterical) ordeals at the hands of his would-be big brothers.

The Gamma Rays are the sorority loyal to the Gamma men, and are led by Jane (Campbell), who’s love and devotion to Julian will eventually be tested in a most hurtful way.  But for now, her and her largely fair-skinned, straight-haired sisters have their own problems with another group of girls on campus whom they’ve unceremoniously dubbed the ‘jigaboos’…girls with darker skin and kinky hair (who, in turn, call the Gamma Rays ‘wannabes’).  Their confrontation is highlighted in, of all things, a musical number that looks like a West Side Story scene.

Homecoming weekend is usually the biggest event of the school year, and Lee presents it with all the necessary accoutrements, including the aforementioned fraternity rushes, pep rally, coronation (another good musical number, featuring both Ms. Campbell and Jasmine Guy), and, of course, the big football game, where Lee avoids the usual sports scene clichés by NOT showing us the game…only crowd and sideline reactions.  A strange, but effective choice.

The way the characters interact with one another is meant to reflect not only Lee’s view of school life, but black life in general.  They are a mix of different mind sets and values that can either coexist in harmony or in strife, and because of this quality, I found I had no idea how the film was going to end up.  Was it going to maintain its sense of comedy through to the end, or would there be a stunning eye opener a la Do The Right Thing?  The answer is actually somewhere in between, but along the way, I liked moments such as when Dap, an avid anti-Greek, actually goes to Julian to put in a good word for his cousin.  Or the finale, where Julian completes Half-Pint’s initiation in a terrible, heartless way that really forces a thorough questioning of an established system of values.

The cast is rounded out by a number of Spike Lee regulars, including his sister Joie Lee, Bill Nunn, Ossie Davis (who has a show stopping scene as the football coach), and even a small appearance by Samuel L. Jackson. 

Though not a perfect film, and certainly one with occasional lapses of technique and some unresolved issues at the end (as in life), I still found School Daze to be one of the most entertaining and intelligent movies about school life since Fast Times at Ridgemont High…and I have still to see a better one since then in more than fifteen years. 

Video ***1/2

The anamorphic widescreen presentation is another commendable effort from Columbia Tri Star.  The film is in surprisingly good shape for its age, and the transfer is virtually flawless.  The images are sharp and crisply rendered, and coloring is excellent throughout…natural looking, with no bleeding anywhere.  Darker scenes render as well as lighter scenes, with integrity of definition and no grain, noise or evidence of compression. 

Audio ***

This Dolby surround mix is a good one, mostly made so by the film’s music.  Spike Lee’s father Bill penned the score and some of the songs, but the soundtrack is also peppered by good tunes like the number one hit by E. U. “Da Butt”.  The music gives the film most of its dynamic range, but Lee also brings some out of his scenarios, be they the loud boisterous homecoming scenes or the quiet, revealing stints of dialogue. 

Features ****

Columbia Tri Star has repackaged this title nicely as a special edition.  The highlight of the extras is a commentary track by Lee, which is not as good nor as informative as I would have hoped.  It’s very sparse, with long gaps of silence, mostly peppered by him laughing at his own jokes after admitting he hadn’t seen the picture in a number of years.  It’s a pleasant enough listen, just light on substance.  A new commentary with cast members Tisha Campbell, Rusty Cundieff, Bill Nunn, Darryl Bell and Kadeem Hardison made for an enjoyable reunion.

Three featurettes are included, totaling about an hour.  They chronicle the making of the film, the impact, and some of the artists' own college memories.  Both new and vintage cast and crew interviews are featured.

Rounding out are three music videos and a bonus disc...the classic soundtrack recording on CD!

Summary:

School Daze is a worthy entry into the filmography of one of America’s most prolific filmmakers, and serves as an excellent indicator of the genius of Spike Lee which would come to full fruition in his next film, Do the Right Thing.  Like it, this movie will make you laugh til it hurts, then leave you with a final, sobering thought that will remain with you long after the laughter has faded.

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