THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
After reading Chris Funderburg's series The Whole History of My Life on this website numerous times, I was inspired to write about the films that I too "really really love." I have a lot of favorite movies. Most of those movies have taught me a lot about cinema. But very few of them have actually touched me on a personal level and made me take a step back and rethink or question things about my life. It's hard to find films that cater to a large, left-handed, architectural-drafting, historically black college-graduating, young black man with diabetes who received a kidney from his uncle. I don't like or relate to most modern films that concern black people. Kidney disease and architecture are seldom explored on the big screen, and there hasn't been an accurate portrayal of a historically black college in over two decades.
But every few years or so I revisit or discover an exceptional film that truly challenges me and forces me to reflect on my own life...
<< part one: THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT >>
<<part two: FEAR X>>
You talk more shit than a little bit! BACK TO MOTHER AF-RI-CA! That's bullshit! Without question we are ALL Black Americans! You don't know a god damn thing about AF-RI-CA! I am from Detroit. Motown. So you can watusi your monkey ass back to AF-RI-CA if you want to!
– Giancarlo Esposito, School Daze
School Daze is unique to this series in that it's not actually an all-time personal favorite of mine. I like it a lot, but I don't watch it on repeat like I do Fear X or U.S. Go Home (the next film I'll be covering) and it didn't really teach me much about cinema either. Up until I started writing this piece, I hadn't watched School Daze in quite some time because I'm just a little tired of Spike Lee these days. He's an opinionated person and there's nothing wrong with that. Personally I think he takes a lot of undeserved hate from some people because he's an opinionated black man in mainstream media. Other times however, he says and does ridiculous shit that just makes him look stupid. His filmmaking has clearly taken a backseat to what comes out of his mouth and what he posts on twitter. This became evident to me when I watched Red Hook Summer last year. My reaction to that film was identical to that of John Cribbs after he sat through A History of Violence for the first time - the only difference is that I'll probably never give Red Hook Summer a second chance. But no matter how tired I am of Spike Lee, School Daze still holds a lot of nostalgia and played a semi-important role in a life changing decision I made when I was a teenager, so it'll always be a part of me no matter what.
I guess I was destined to go to a historically black college. My mother went to one (Knoxville College) and pledged a historically black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, the sorority that the Gamma Rays were loosely based on in School Daze (no, my mother isn't superficial and she doesn't have skin complexion issues). And although my father didn't go to a historically black college (Southern Illinois University) he still pledged a historically black fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, the fraternity that the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity is very much based on School Daze. I was lucky enough to grow up in an era when this sudden pride in historically black colleges just showed up out of nowhere. Rappers I idolized would appear on the Arsenio Hall Show or Yo! MTV Raps wearing historically black college paraphernalia and I thought that was the coolest thing ever (you see that, mom and dad? All that rap music you thought would have a bad influence on me actually made me want to go to college). You could suddenly buy a Florida A & M starter jacket at the mall.
Bill Cosby would always wear sweatshirts and baseball caps of all the various black colleges whenever he was on television. Let's also not forget that his character on The Cosby Show went to the fictitious historically black college Hillman, which went on to be the setting for the popular Cosby Show spin-off/launch pad for Marisa Tomei's career A Different World. Hillman was an amalgam of a few real historically black colleges like Clark-Atlanta, Spellman, Morehouse and Hampton, my alma mater. Spike Lee did the same thing with his sophomore feature. "Mission College," the fictitious black university in School Daze, was a combination of Morehouse College (where Lee enrolled as an undergrad and made his first student film, Last Hustle in Brooklyn), Clark-Atlanta and Spellman. I'm not sure if it's been noted, but there's always been a strong connection between School Daze and A Different World. Besides being the first majorly recognized stories about the black college experience to come out around the same time, both featured a lot of the same actors (Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy, Darryl Bell, etc).
It was a beautiful thing - historically black colleges had reached a new plateau. It was considered "cool" to want to go to one. The promotion of these schools was very important because it gave black youth hope that they could still go to college when predominantly white schools would possibly shut the doors in their faces if they didn't have a perfect S.A.T. score or bring some type of athletic ability to the table. That's still true today; the irony of course is that nowadays it's become slightly more difficult for black students to even get accepted into black universities. For years, historically black colleges have been trying to shake the stigma that they're for black students only so they've been accepting more non-black students in an effort to diversify.* This is what made A Different World slightly ahead of its time with Marisa Tomei's character. In 2013, people still have a hard time grasping the concept that white people go to historically black schools, yet almost two and a half decades ago a major television show on NBC was already addressing that.
There's still a misconception about what a historically black college is outside of the relativity small community of people associated with them. I always found the success that School Daze had in Europe to be a little perplexing, given that a black college has about the same amount of importance to a French person or Italian person as American football does. No offense to any of my fellow black college graduates reading this but it's true. Although most black schools are fairly small when compared to other "major universities," they aren't community colleges or junior colleges or "special schools" for underprivileged black kids.** I wish I didn't have to clear that up with you all, but these are some of the actual ridiculous things I've heard associated with historically black schools over the years. I once went on a job interview and when the person interviewing me saw "Hampton University" at the top of my resume, I had to explain that it was a historically black college. To which he replied, "Oh - like one of those special schools?" Even though he didn't mean anything malicious, that's still the kind of accidentally racist bullshit that comes up from time to time which still reminds us (black folks) that we have a long ways to go. In a somewhat recent racist-but-not-racist-but-actually-quite-racist Vice article in which James Franco "reviewed" Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, he managed to get the name wrong of one of the most prestigious black schools around. He referred to Grambling State as "Gramble." I'm willing to bet he wouldn't have spelled Brigham Young or Sacred Heart incorrectly. Often times you hear young white people complain and say "how come there's no such thing as a historically white school?" not realizing that every American university IS technically a "white school" in terms of how it was founded.
There's plenty more examples of these kinds of casual dismissals that some white people have of anything that's predominantly black, but in an effort to clear things up, let's just define what a historically black college or university (HBCU) is. A historically black college or university is an institution of higher learning in the United States established before 1964 with the intention of serving the black community. Books have been written on black schools so we're not gonna get too deep into the history behind them (we're supposed to be talking about School Daze) but basically, as most of us know, Jim Crow era and pre-Jim Crow era America made it difficult-to-impossible for black youth to get a higher education, so separate institutes were made for black students (and the occasional Native American student) to get a higher form of education when other colleges and universities wouldn't accept them. They usually started out as a one-room shack back in the late 1800's and very early 1900's, but today they've grown to become full campuses just like any school and they accept students of any race, ethnicity or nationality (and always technically have).
I'm starting to feel a little uncomfortable and insecure as I write this. A few years ago, I vowed to keep my Spike Lee movie criticism to a minimum because it's expected of me as a black movie lover to praise his work. This is actually my first official review of a Spike Lee film since I started devoting a big part of my life to film criticism. I remember when we were doing the 90's movie list on this site - I hoped that John wouldn't assign me to write about Clockers (one of my favorite movies) because I didn't want to be the one black contributor to write about the one Spike Lee film on the list.*** There was a long period in my life when the minute someone, either black or white, discovered that I loved movies, they would take a look at me (i.e. my skin color) and would say something along the lines of, "You like movies? You must really love Spike Lee then, huh?" I swear to god this has happened to me so many times that I've lost count. I like John Cassavetes, Michael Haneke, Lucrecia Martel, Victor Erice, Akira Kurosawa and hundreds of other filmmakers. It's ok to ask me about them too. I don't like playing into stereotypes placed on me so I've always tried to keep my opinions about Spike Lee to a minimum unless I'm around people I know and trust.
And truth be told, although he was prolific in the 80's and the first half of the 90's, I've been indifferent or frustrated with everything he's done since Bamboozled. But School Daze is literally the one legitimate film in existence that shows the black college experience beyond stepping (Stomp the Yard) and marching bands (Drumline). I have a big problem with that because School Daze is literally 25 years old. You mean to tell me in 25 years no other important or prolific filmmaker wanted to explore the world of historically black colleges and universities? Seems like the perfect subject for a guy like Frederick Wiseman, no? For a while there were rumors of Spike Lee writing a School Daze sequel, but these days he's too busy trying to get handouts on Kickstarter and remaking movies that don't really need to be remade.
If you read my previous write-up on Fear X, I briefly mentioned my aunt's passing back in 2005, which I took kind of hard. Besides being just an all-around excellent aunt, it was at her house in Pittsfield, Mass where the genesis of my movie discovery began, only I didn't know it at the time. For whatever reason, there wasn't much of a filter on what me and my cousins were allowed to watch at her house in the form of television and movies. To this day that strikes me as odd because my aunt Myrna ran a pretty tight household and had plenty of rules for my 8 cousins (and me whenever I visited). I didn't exactly discover the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson at her house, but I do remember watching stuff like Rosemary's Baby, Godfather II and The Warriors with her. That's pretty eclectic viewing for an 8-year-old in my opinion. But I remember watching School Daze at her house more than anything else. It was kind of a big event because at the time I saw it on cable (around 1990, I think). Do the Right Thing had already came out so Spike Lee was like the great black hope. It was the early 90's and America was in the midst of a legitimate black filmmaker explosion: Carl Franklin, John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles (possibly the first 2nd generation black American filmmaker?), Matty Rich, Bill Duke, Robert Townsend, The Hughes Brothers, The Hudlin Brothers, Wendall B. Harris, Ernest Dickerson, etc. Spike Lee was made the defacto "star" of the bunch by the media and black audiences alike, which is something that's stuck to this day and has kind of gone to his head whether he wants to admit it or not. I mean think about it, has there been a black filmmaker to emerge in the last 20 years to not get compared to Spike Lee? I'm not saying we should downplay his importance. Spike Lee did emerge at a time when the representation of African Americans in film and television was looking a little dismal (even though Robert Townsend was fighting in the trenches by himself for a few years and Melvin Van Peebles was still active in Europe). After the success of She's Gotta Have It, Spike Lee could have gone a million different directions with his film career. Black people loved him because they could finally go to the movies and see themselves on the big screen in non-stereotypical roles, studios liked him because his movies made money and Europeans loved him because his debut film evoked the spirit of Godard.
Just recently, I was listening to a podcast interview with Whit Stillman and race was surprisingly one of the topics that came up. I say surprisingly because Stillman is kind of the last person I'd expect to have a conversation regarding the representation of black people in film, given that his filmography doesn't exactly represent black people. Only in his most recent film did he have not one but two black co-stars. I was pleasantly surprised that he acknowledged the lack of black people in mainstream cinema and how difficult it is for filmmakers to get a movie made with black actors. But one thing he said struck me as odd. He made a comment along the lines of how black films rarely find an audience in Europe. Now he's in the film industry and I'm not, so he'd know better than me, but last time I checked Spike Lee was loved in Europe between the late 80's through the early 90's. And no matter how much mainstream and international success was waiting for Lee (which he eventually found on his own terms) he chose to "kept it real" and continued to tell black stories.
But over the years there's been this unofficial authority placed on him (that he chooses to accept whenever its convenient) where he's like the be-all/end-all of modern black cinema. Last year I attended an intimate screening of Newlyweeds, a predominantly black film directed by new black filmmaker Shaka King, and all throughout the Q & A all I heard was "Spike Lee, Spike Lee, Spike Lee" until I finally had to speak up and say, "What does Spike Lee have to do with this movie?!" I thought I was out of line at first, but King gave me a nod of recognition and he understood my frustration. Does Darren Aronofsky get compared to George Lucas? Does Park Chan-wook get compared to Wong Kar-wai? No.
It should be noted that Lee did teach King early on in film school, but at the end of the day Newlyweeds is a stoner dramedy which is something Spike Lee would never do, so why make the comparison between the two directors beyond their skin color?
CONTINUED ON NEXT PAGE
* That's not an insult or a dig to any white person who went to a historically black college.
** No offense to anyone who went to a community college or junior college.
*** If John or Chris ever get another black contributor to write for this site I swear to god I'll sever all ties with them.
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