Spike Lee, the movie maker, likes to call himself an "instigator." In "School Daze," his new film about black college life, he may have done more than he bargained for. His designations of the "Wannabees" -- green-eyed and light-skinned who want to be white -- and the "Jigaboos" -- dark-eyed and dark-skinned who have been discriminated against -- are having a frightening echo in reality.
For at Howard University, "Wannabees" and "Jigaboos" have squared off against each other lately. "Our campus is replete with people who would be 'Wannabees' and others who are 'Jigaboos,' " said Abiyi Ford, professor of film at Howard University. "There is now a great deal of animosity as a result of that. There is a defensive attitude about wearing contact lenses, straightening hair or having light skin . . . . One side is resisting the other without having well-thought-out reasons."
Many, including Spike Lee, may have thought they were dealing with a phenomenon more of the past than the present, but in reality it is still here, a sad, yet very real fact for all to confront.
Watching the film, I found myself laughing at many scenes, and relating to others that recalled my own days at a black college. I certainly wasn't upset at the hair and color polarization that was depicted because I think all issues are fair game for an artist. But I'm afraid that in the end, the film may do damage, especially to today's young people.
"School Daze" may have appeared funny, and on a superficial level it was, for those who have not felt the pain of being involved or having loved ones involved in what unfortunately is a continuing self-destructive phenomenon in the black community. For it confirms white stereotypes about hair and shades of color, providing fuel for those -- both black and white -- who have no real desire to come to terms with the problem and see it solved.
Lee made a point of saying his decision to deal with hair and color was an effort to force blacks to face up to the situation and stop blaming white people for every problem. But it's unclear exactly what "situation" Lee is referring to because, miscegenation and interracial marriage aside, I have yet to hear a black blame a white for his or her physical appearance. Whites are primarily called to task for their reactions to persons of color.
Nevertheless Lee presented the issue as if it was created internally by blacks, when in reality it was externally created and some blacks and some whites have accepted as valid the old saw, "If you're white, you're right. If you're brown, stick around. If you're black, get back."
The fact, of course, is that the model of success that western society has for centuries held up is a white model. Historically, the blacks with lighter complexions have been more acceptable to whites, and some blacks, without thinking, have accepted those sick ideas. This stereotype, of course, is what enabled western colonialism and suppression of persons of color in other countries to be an acceptable fact of life to the oppressors and, in some sad cases, to the oppressed.
Instead of exploring this reality, some young people are apparently dealing with the problem at the same level of banality as Lee did.
Thinking of "School Daze" against the backdrop of the nature of American society and the role blacks play in it, one wonders if a black filmmaker has a greater responsibility to his or her subject matter than a white filmmaker.
Not so, says Ford, the Howard professor, who feels that every filmmaker has the duty to use the powerful medium responsibly. Most don't, however. "A lot of white filmmakers are totally irresponsible and have created havoc around the world by treating important subjects falsely, in a shallow manner," says Ford. Yet he says the effect of a filmmaker -- black or white -- who trivializes a black issue has a disproportionately devastating effect on blacks and their communities.
His statement is evidenced by the behavior of the Howard students, who are the elite in a city where many blacks of all shades are prestigious role models. What then will be the effect of this film on those who do not have such advantages? This is something with which Lee and those enamoured with the film have to come to terms.