Watching Spike Lee's new movie, "School Daze," was like seeing a man lose his appetite in the middle of a spaghetti dinner, leaving strands of pasta dangling from his lips while picking at his plate in search of something more digestible.
Had this film been a light, low-fat look at the weirdness of joining a college fraternity, or even something like a sequel to his first film, say "He's Gotta Have It," then I might have liked what Lee had to serve up.
But he blew it -- from the very opening shots. By starting his movie with a photographic progression of black American history -- from the slave trade to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- Lee obligated himself to at least advance, if not resolve, the black issues he raised.
If he were going to do no more than ask the same old questions about black caste and class, black support for black colleges and divestment in South Africa, he could have left the pictures of Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass and Mary McLeod Bethune out of this film altogether.
Moreover, it was Lee's failure to deal with those issues -- I mean take a stand, brother -- that resulted in his failure to develop the characters that were allegedly concerned about them. In the end, I couldn't give a hoot about any of those characters, which means I couldn't give a hoot about the film.
For those in the audience who did hoot and howl, I think you were tricked. Make no mistake about it, Spike Lee is a funny guy. But in this film, the use of humor, sex and music was a cover-up for his inabililty to deal with the reality he so desperately tried to portray.
For instance, in the first confrontation between the "greek" and the "revolutionary," they disagree on whether divestment in South Africa will help or hurt the black people who live there. It is a tense exchange and, coming as it does at the beginning of the movie, sets a tone for conflict. But how does Lee resolve it? By cutting to a scene of Negro "plebes" barking like dogs on their knees.
And the audience laughs its way right out of the divestment issue.
When one black college official cites Notre Dame and Brigham Young universities as evidence of the need for ethnic and racial schools in an integrated society, another official asks the question: Why won't blacks support black colleges?
Good question, Spike. An old one, but a good one. And how does he deal with it? By panning the camera to a bedroom scene where dudes are verbally dissecting women.
Again, the audience laughs Lee off the hook.
When it comes to his treatment of caste and class, nothing I have ever seen is more convoluted. The reason for this is Lee's inability to deal with women. Not light-skinned women. Not dark-skinned women. Women.
It is embarrassing to watch because all he is saying is "Look, y'all, I like light-skinned women. But they don't like me. So I don't like them. And dark-skinned women don't like me either, because I don't like them."
That's a good place to start a movie, so long as the character with the problem gets transformed. He has to grow, and the audience has to see it happen. Instead, his characters shrink before my eyes.
The result is a forced, false confrontation between black women. It makes no sense at all because, in this movie, they are all just alike -- no difference in them whatsoever. It is as if Lee realizes this somewhere in the middle of the movie and decides to throw in a dance scene in hopes that watching women gyrate will make the audience overlook his personal problem.
I left this movie feeling that Lee had bitten off more than he could chew, and hoped that he would go back to school and read up on his history with the same enthusiasm that he did film-making.
There is no question that he is an important black filmmaker. But this film did not "uplift the race," as the logo on his black college suggested it might. By substituting cheap sex, trite humor and lip-sync music for substance, it did no more than pick my pocket and leave me in a daze.