After the success of "She's Gotta Have It," everybody expected big things of writer-director Spike Lee, whom critics dubbed "the black Woody Allen." His new project, an eagerly awaited musical comedy, began as a standard collegiate farce -- geeks versus Greeks -- but Lee wanted more depth, he wanted issues.
So "Homecoming" became "School Daze," a didactic collegiate farce -- "Animal House" with pan-African politics, and an enormously embarrassing encore. Tell an inexperienced director he's a genius, and you create Dr. Frankenstein.
"School Daze," with its pompous patchwork plot, is an arrogant, humorless, sexist mess. Based on Lee's days at Atlanta's Morehouse College, it pits the light-skinned "Wannabees" against the dark-skinned "Jigaboos" at make-believe Mission College. It's a juvenile, yet controversial, treatment of an intricate intraracial conflict. Lee, who has condemned Whoopi Goldberg for her blue contact lenses and Michael Jackson for his nose job, seems obsessed by racial cosmetics.
Though the movie is aimed at black viewers (with the hope of riling them), the Jigaboo heroes and Wannabee villains bear striking similarities to mainstream counterparts -- in "Revenge of the Nerds," say, with its blond frat brats and rainbow coalition of good guys. Here, the Jigaboos are led by Dap Dunlap (Larry Fishburne), who disrupts the frivolity of homecoming weekend by demanding that Mission divest itself of its holdings in South Africa. The Wannabee Greeks -- the Gamma Phi Gammas and their straight-haired girlfriends, the Rays -- mock and revile the undaunted Dap.
Then the nappy-haired coeds duel with their light sisters in a sudden musical number -- a "West Side Story"-style song-and-dance-off. Dap's lady Rachel Meadows (Kyme) leads the Jigaboos, and blue-eyed Jane Toussaint (Tisha Campbell) the Rays, in this processed hair-pulling contest. Toussaint, a slave to Gamma's Big Brother Almighty, is both adored and debased as Lee works out his id garbage onscreen. Ultimately, Big Brother gives her to the pledge Half-Pint (Lee) to be ravished. These characters are sexist, racist sadists and, yet, impossibly dull.
Rachel and Dap have a loving relationship, and Lee has a better sense of what he's about when he's working with this appealing couple, or with Dap and his buddies, real human beings with believable concerns. "I'll be the first one in my family to go to college," says one in refusing to join Dap's protest. "I ain't throwing it away for you, not for Bishop Tutu, not for Jesus Christ himself." Now there's an honest character in an honest moment.
These guys are instantly likable, like the crew in "Diner." We'd follow them anywhere, and when Lee does, he finds humor and poignancy. Clearly for Lee, social consciousness is better than social climbing. But the greater conflict -- to jump in or stay out of the melting pot -- is never resolved. Lee has the answers down deep inside. But right now, he's fixated on cornrows and Jheri curls. Mentioning divestiture doesn't make a little movie big.
School Daze, playing at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity.