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No Niggers


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**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Spike Lee

With Larry Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, and Kyme.

It's difficult at first to see what all the trouble is about. It's so simple, really. Here's Spike Lee following up the surprise success of his low-budget romantic comedy She's Gotta Have It with something bigger and in every way better--School Daze, a satiric look at campus life at an all-black college. It's loosely structured and light on its feet, yet manages to deal with the issues of class, race consciousness, and social climbing among young middle-class blacks--heady stuff in any form, but especially in a musical comedy.

School Daze centers on the rivalry between warring factions at "Mission College": the light-skinned upper-middle-class "Wannabes," headed by frat-house king Julian "Big Brother Almighty" Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito) versus the darker skinned lower-middle-class "Jigaboos," represented by political activist Dap Dunlap (Larry Fishburne). The action takes place over the college's homecoming weekend, and every activity we see--parties, dances, rallies, and the big football game--reflects the rivalry between these two groups. Nothing, however, separates the factions more than pledge week--particularly as Dap's cousin Half-Pint (played by Lee himself) is determined to get into the all-powerful "Gamma Phi Gamma" fraternity.

This is tough, touchy material, made even touchier by casual references to South Africa (the university has investments there), black middle-class insularity (blacks don't support colleges like Mission the way other ethnic groups support institutions designed for them), and black male misogyny (a very unsettling bit of business in which Julian asks his girlfriend Jane to "give" herself to his fraternity brothers--and then dumps her for going along with the idea). Yet for all these rough edges, the whole show is amazingly smooth; for all the things that make School Daze "different," it's really just a college musical at heart--like Good News or Too Many Girls. There's a large, lively, and very talented troupe of players up on-screen; the musical numbers touch on a whole range of black styles from 40s big band to 50s cool jazz to Motown and funk, and they're all put across with an infectious enthusiasm.

So what's the problem?

"Well," said one white journalist on the way out of a press screening I attended, "it's very nice but . . . it's really just for blacks."

Though School Daze has met with excellent box-office response since its opening in mid-February, critical reaction has been almost overwhelmingly hostile. Only J. Hoberman in the Village Voice has truly praised the film. The double "thumbs up" it earned from Siskel and Ebert was primarily in recognition of the film's display of black female pulchritude--its ethics and aesthetics counting for little. More typical was the appraisal of L.A. Weekly critic John Powers, who attacked School Daze for failing to "teach white viewers something" and went on to cite its $6 million cost as somehow detrimental, leading to Lee's allegedly "overblown" design for the film. The fact that the average Hollywood feature costs twice that amount didn't seem to occur to Powers. New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin was similarly cost-conscious, slamming Lee both in a regular review and in a Sunday article, implying that the maker of the smaller-scale She's Gotta Have It was somehow out of his depth in the moviemaking big time. Not since Bosley Crowther repeatedly attacked Bonnie and Clyde back in 1967 has the Times expended so much ink in lambasting an individual film.

To understand what Spike Lee has done to inspire such hostile condescension, it might be useful to look at a segment from an entirely different film, Woody Allen's Radio Days. It's the hilarious scene in which Uncle Abe complains about the neighbors playing the radio during the High Holy Days. You don't have to be Jewish to get the joke; bitching about the neighbors isn't ethnically exclusive. And that's the point. Jews have been completely assimilated into the cultural mainstream. Twenty years ago Allen would have been encouraged to "broaden his appeal" by making the background of the Radio Days family "less specific, more universal." Today he doesn't have to make "adjustments." The scene is understood--thoroughly familiar.

School Daze is another story. You don't have to go any further than the big production number "Straight and Nappy" to see what's going on. It's an elaborate musical fantasy in which coeds from the Wannabe and Jigaboo factions square off in Madame Re-Re's Beauty Salon to sing about "good" and "bad" hair--natural dos versus processed ones. It's a challenge dance--a loving send-up of the "America" number in West Side Story, in which a group of very beautiful and talented young women let loose with the sort of roof-raising enthusiasm that hasn't been seen on-screen since the "Ice Cold Katie" number from Thank Your Lucky Stars. Just as with Radio Days, you don't have to know the specifics--the meaning of the word "kitchen" in the context of black hairstyles, for example, or the history of real-life hair-straightener magnate Madame Walker--in order to get the point and enjoy the number. But seeing this scene unspool before a mixed audience, with laughing and cheering blacks sitting beside confused or stonefaced whites, makes it clear that some spectators don't want to get the point. "To be honest with you I didn't understand half of it," is a common white response. What's to understand? It's a dance number.

The "problem" with School Daze is that it has the temerity to assume that its chief spectator isn't a white adolescent male. This is in sharp contrast to 99.99 percent of the commercial films released in this country, which when they do manage to deal with women, adults, or racial and ethnic minorities do so only within rigidly specified parameters. What this means is that the blacks you see on-screen are carefully contrived creations. Whatever skills they may possess are featured in inverse proportion to any other characteristics that would threaten to have them mistaken for actual three-dimensional human beings, as that would shake up the unstable status of the all-important white male adolescents. So Eddie Murphy can be as smart and sassy as he pleases, as long as he doesn't have a love life worth taking seriously or any relation to other blacks that might resemble sociopolitical solidarity. For the same reason, blacks who work at the service of whites are especially prized. There's no real difference between Lou Gosset teaching Richard Gere to be a Navy pilot in An Officer and a Gentleman and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson teaching Shirley Temple the "step dance" routine in The Little Colonel (except that the step dance is of infinitely greater service to mankind).

Of course this proscription on black activity doesn't mean that blacks can't go off by themselves once in a while--as long as they report back to whites on what they do. "What [Richard] Pryor and [Eddie] Murphy share," wrote critic Andrew Sarris recently, "is a solid core audience in the black community to which they are directly wired, and the white crossovers--the young, the disaffected, the hip, and the curious--are invited to look in and listen in on the elaborately coded rituals for growing up and surviving in black and white America." Sarris has got hold of some elaborately coded rituals, all right, but not the ones he imagines. The real meaning of that sentence lies in its revelation of the delusory extent to which whites will go to make themselves feel comfortable with blacks. Sarris's mythical "solid core audience" of blacks makes his conflation of Pryor and Murphy possible, though there's an obvious world of difference between the former--from an unstable lower-class background--and the latter, a middle-class kid from Queens. And Sarris never deals with the fact that many black moviegoers care for neither comedian.

What brings Pryor and Murphy together more than anything else is their use of one word: "nigger," the put-down of racist whites, absorbed by blacks and used to attack one another, here enunciated before a large public against the tabula rasa of stand-up comedy. For whites it's like a special dispensation from on high--those too timid to use the word can still grab a thrill from hearing it. For blacks it's a verbal weapon of self-abuse--a declaration of a common (low) denominator for the entire race. In School Daze Lee succeeds in upsetting this poison apple cart in a scene where the college boys are confronted by a group of locals at a fast-food restaurant. "College don't mean shit, you'll always be niggers, always, just like us," says a local. With great calm Dap Dunlap answers him: "You're not niggers."

The sigh of relief that fills the theater in the wake of this exchange is from black spectators fed up with the "humor" of the Pryor/Murphy joke. The shocked intake of breath is from white spectators who up to this point thought the movie's college boys were no different from "street" blacks.

The "street" personae of black stars like Pryor and Murphy dominate the market because of their continued usefulness in a culture that chooses to regard blacks and other racial and sexual minorities not as people but as "types." Blackness isn't to be seen as an aspect of identity but an element of style--an element, Sarris notes, that whites are all too eager to adapt into a talisman of "hipness." And it's here that we find the heart of objections to Spike Lee; he offers nothing for whites to co-opt.

In a very real sense the history of black America is a story of conflict between those desirous of a genuine black American culture and those willing to sacrifice that culture for acceptance on white terms. You can hear it in the voices of black pop singers talking about reaching a "broader" audience. It's embodied in the very term "crossover." Cross over from where to what? The campus war between Wannabes and Jigaboos in School Daze is funny but real. So real, in fact, that when Lee appeared on the Today Show Bryant Gumbel worked himself into a frenzy of How dare yous: the film had found Gumbel out. But Lee wasn't gloating in triumph over Gumbel's unmasking as Wannabe Number One. In his clear, calm, steady voice he simply repeated his oft-quoted desire: he wants to make films about black people's lives. And that's what he has done--simply, straightforwardly, and entertainingly. It's not a new idea. He has many predecessors. But at this particular moment in what the media keep telling us is the twilight of the "Reagan Revolution," the voice of an intelligent, forthright black man is simply untenable.

Is School Daze "just for blacks"? The question proceeds from a false premise. The problem isn't with School Daze; the problem is with a white culture that cannot deal with the spectacle of blacks on-screen on their own terms. The real question: are white people interested in black people at all? The answer, quite frankly, is no.

And that's what the trouble is all about.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daved Lee.

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