Spike Lee’s remarkably assured 1986 directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It, didn’t just display promise; it promised greatness. It wasn’t apparent at the time, however, what form that greatness might take. In the years since, Lee has made just about every type of film, from enraged, socially conscious documentaries to slick studio thrillers and everything in between. But while Lee’s enormous talent was evident from the beginning, the depth and scope of that talent wasn’t revealed until later.
One possibility suggested by his first film, which perfectly illustrates its creator’s gifts while still feeling like an outlier in his filmography: Would Lee be the next Woody Allen? That question might seem absurd now, but at the time of She’s Gotta Have It’s release, it seemed natural to draw a connection between this brash, talented, original newcomer and another short, funny, prickly New Yorker in love with his hometown, sports, jazz, and casting himself as a man who has sex with beautiful women. She’s Gotta Have It was fresh and raw, but it also bore a distinct resemblance to Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan. Like Manhattan, She’s Gotta Have It captures New York in swooning black-and-white cinematography that gives it the feeling of a love letter to the city. And like Annie Hall, She’s Gotta Have It features characters addressing the camera to vent their desires and frustrations as they try to understand a complicated woman.
Lee’s debut seemed to promise as much for Lee the actor as it did for Lee the filmmaker. One of the sharpest, most unexpected surprises in revisiting She’s Gotta Have It is how good Lee is in it. He didn’t just arrive fully formed as a filmmaker, he also hit audiences with a beautifully wrought persona to rival Allen in his prime. As Mars Blackmon, one-fourth of a love quadrangle that includes sexually adventurous Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), narcissistic preppie Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and salt-of-the-Earth traditionalist Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Lee is a revelation. He gives the character a paradoxical monotone peppiness, a manic deadpan sensibility. Lee’s acting range is even smaller than his diminutive frame, but in She’s Gotta Have It—and later, School Daze and Do The Right Thing—he worked wonders within those limitations.
She’s Gotta Have It makes it strangely easy to believe that a woman as desirable as Nola would want to have sex with Mars, even though she’s also having sex with two more attractive, wealthier rivals. Though he’s now America’s cranky grandpa hollering at us to get off his lawn, Lee is genuinely sexy here, in part because She’s Gotta Have It is a profoundly sexy film. In the early part of his career, Lee was an unabashed sensualist, and She’s Gotta Have It benefits from an eroticism and appreciation for both the female and male form. The film has the sharp compositions and striking tableaus of photographs. Even as a young man, Lee understood the exquisite interplay of music, images, and editing, the way they could combine to create something striking and resonant.
But where Lee’s enormous gifts are in evidence in She’s Gotta Have It, so are his equally enormous faults. The film established Lee as a brilliant director, a funny and distinctive writer, and a man whose films expressed deeply problematic attitudes toward women. She’s Gotta Have It was hailed at the time of its release for its frank depiction of aggressive female sexuality. But while Lee seems to have to set out to make a sex-positive, even feminist movie, he runs hard into his ingrained social conservatism at every turn.
For instance, Lee probably thought he was being progressive in prominently featuring a lesbian character, which was all but unheard of in 1986. But he undermines his good intentions by making Opal Gilstrap’s (Raye Dowell) sexual preference her entire identity. It’s so central to the character that she all but prefaces every statement with, “Now, as a lesbian, I think…” Opal is on hand to attempt to seduce Nola, to shoot angry glares at the breeders trying to muscle in on what she sees as her territory, and to lend the film an additional element of sexual tension with the possibility that Nola might yield to Opal’s aggressive overtures in a crowd-pleasing frenzy of lipstick-lesbian lovemaking.
Though Nola is the object of desire and sexual attraction at the center of the film, She’s Gotta Have It seems to subscribe to the worldview of Jamie, an arch-traditionalist and inveterate believer in the sanctity of marriage, who reluctantly agrees to be one of Nola’s lovers out of a fierce conviction that he can tame her into a proper wife. In the film’s most striking, ambitious sequence, the world goes from gritty black-and-white to extravagant color when Jamie treats Nola to an elaborate ballet in the park that he’s commissioned, about her and their complicated relationship. He’s a true-blue representation of hearty, rock-ribbed masculinity, and he’s depicted in an overwhelmingly positive light. The film tips its hand by having Mars—played by the man who wrote and directed the film—profess his admiration for his much-better-looking, more accomplished romantic rival.
Jamie grows increasingly enraged by Nola’s insistence on maintaining a roster of lovers until, in a fit of rage, he forces himself on her. This deeply disconcerting scene marks a strange turning point in She’s Gotta Have It, as Nola begins doggedly pursuing Jamie and eschewing the bohemian excesses of her existence. The rape lends a queasy aftertaste to what’s otherwise a funny, vibrant, and gorgeously executed exploration of sexuality. Throughout the film, feminism and sexism fight a fierce battle. Lee might lust after Nola, he might find her fascinating, but he doesn’t understand her, and he can’t keep stern, paternalistic judgment from creeping into the film. She’s Gotta Have It often says the right things about female empowerment and sexuality, but it can’t entirely bring itself to believe them.
At a tight 84 minutes, She’s Gotta Have It boasts an economy and structure that would be in short supply in Lee’s films to come. The film’s running time compared to its less rapturously received follow-up, 1988’s School Daze, says much about the big leap in ambition the latter film represents. At 121 minutes, a chunk of which is devoted to full-on musical numbers, School Daze demonstrates that Lee’s tendency toward bloat, messiness, and overreaching was there early on. Thankfully, those tendencies are part of what makes him one of the greatest, most important filmmakers alive. After all, who else could turn a college sex comedy into a furious manifesto on race relations within the African-American community?
For the follow-up to his breakthrough film, Lee didn’t just set out to make a movie about the fascinating, underexplored world of black colleges; he set out to make a movie about everything. The sprawling, genius mess of a movie chronicles one homecoming weekend at Mission College, an institution founded in 1883 with a mission to “Uplift The Race,” and functioning as a microcosm of America’s racial history. The film’s ambitious scope is evident from the first image, , set to the soaring uplift of a gospel song: an illustration of slaves in a ship whose shape bears a distinct resemblance to “Big Bertha,” the massive paddle used in the film to torment fraternity pledges. The opening montage tells the story of Africans in America using only song, editing, and image. Lee was letting audiences know that his version of a college movie would be an alternately sobering and joyous referendum on the state of black America circa 1988, rather than a goofy romp filled with panty raids and beer pong.
This opening montage also establishes that the film’s conflicts and contradictions are rooted in a long historical struggle, an old war being fought by new players on a new stage. It establishes that the black experience is heterogeneous: There isn’t one Black America, there are thousands, each with different ideas about progress, identity, and pride.
In true Spike Lee form, School Daze gives voice to a multitude of perspectives, but doesn’t give them equal weight. In the battle between the contingent of Afrocentrists led by Vaughn “Dap” Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne, at the height of his youthful beauty and magnetism) and the fraternity assimilationists led by Julian Eaves, also known as “Dean Big Brother Almighty” (a mesmerizing Giancarlo Esposito in a flashy performance far removed from his signature role as a quietly terrifying drug kingpin in Breaking Bad), Lee leaves little mystery about where his sympathies lie. He casts himself as one of the fraternity pledges, Darrell “Half-Pint” Dunlap, who’s in the strange position of being Dap’s cousin and Dean Big Brother Almighty’s plaything to degrade.
School Daze opens with Dap shouting “Yo” though a bullhorn with the steely assurance of Chuck D. Let other, lesser filmmakers worry about being overly didactic: Lee opens his big studio film with a figure of unimpeachable moral conviction straight-up hollering fiery rhetoric—through a bullhorn, no less—about how shameful it is that even a historically black college like Mission refuses to divest from South Africa. The only thing that’s missing is an actual soapbox.
Back at the frat house, meanwhile, Gamma pledges are extensively and entertainingly humiliated for their big brothers’ amusement. Dean Big Brother Almighty takes delight in getting in the faces of his subjects, particularly Half-Pint, who’s masochistically devoted to an institution that promises a quick ticket to success and wealth, with none of the smothering, medicinal righteousness of Dap and his endless crusades. A hapless virgin who just wants to fit in, Half-Pint becomes the subject of a fierce tug-of-war between Dap and Dean Big Brother Almighty for not just his soul, but that of the campus at large, and by extension, black America.
Half-Pint has so internalized the ritualistic absurdity of frat life that when he covertly meets with Dap to beg him to get him a girl to take his virginity (needless to say, that isn’t how Dap gets down), he can’t stop pronouncing the name of Big Brother Almighty the prescribed way—roughly “Big Brother Al-Migh-TEE!”—even after Dap keeps correcting him. Even when there are no Gammas around to force him to follow idiotic laws, Half-Pint still feels the need to toe the line. And if Half-Pint internalizes the stupid rules of the frat house to that extent, it seems to follow that he’d also internalize the frat’s institutionalized sexism, classism, and smug superiority—just as the Gammas internalize the warped values of capitalism and white mainstream society. Half-Pint desperately wants to be a Gamma man, and in School Daze, a Gamma man is a pretty terrible thing to be.
One of the fascinating paradoxes of School Daze is that it is most musical during its non-musical sequences. The chants and dances the Gamma charges have to do in honor of their asshole tormentors have a percussive snap and lyrical rhythm so strong, it renders music unnecessary. This is high theater, a dance meticulously choreographed only for the benefit of its participants. Then again, it’s hard to know where the production numbers end, because for Lee, this is all music. The erotic charge of a fraternity brand being lovingly kissed by a sorority sister, the call-and-response of the fraternity brothers, Fishburne’s sonorous voice, burning with intensity and purpose: For Spike Lee, these are all part of the music of black life during an exciting, uncertain time.
In the film’s first and most audacious production number, the dark-skinned women affiliated with Dap and his nationalists square off against Dean Big Brother Almighty’s girlfriend, Jane Toussaint (Tisha Campbell-Martin), and her light-skinned minions in the Gamma Rays, the Gammas’ female auxiliary. The ensuing production number, set at a hair salon, represents an academic treatise on the infinite permutations and complexities of black identity, re-imagined as a razzle-dazzle, Busby Berkeley-style musical number—albeit one with women calling each other “Jigaboos” and “Wannabes” in a song that grows more vicious with every verse. It’s a high-wire cultural mash-up between the art and culture of black rage and the overwhelmingly white world of classic musicals. It’s a production number so audacious and so recklessly, righteously brazen that it’s astonishing it made it into a studio movie in 1988.
School Daze is an unusual musical in part because it’s so angry and political, but also because every musical sequence is filmed in a different style. For example, the hair-salon sequence is pure old-school Arthur Freed lavishness; the next sequence, the sexy, sleek “Be Alone Tonight,” a vehicle for the Gamma Rays, is a modernized take on girl groups, splitting the difference between The Supremes and En Vogue. But the film’s breakout hit was E.U.’s “Da Butt,” which the group performs during a sexy, steamy college party. E.U.’s “Da Butt” represents one of the only times when the D.C.-based genre of go-go music was ever put on film. With School Daze, Lee was passionately chronicling highly specific worlds that had never been documented onscreen before, let alone with such fiery intensity and wit.
School Daze gives everyone their say, from the old lions who run the college to Dap disciples who wonder what’s wrong with wanting to have a good job and provide for your family, to a group of townies led by a young, scene-stealing Samuel L. Jackson, who delivers a fierce tongue-lashing to Dap and his followers when they tangle at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Jackson is predictably electrifying. Nobody utters profanity as masterfully or with as much palpable delight; he is a prince of profanity, a sultan of swearing, the monarch of “Motherfucker.” The young Jackson is one of the many School Daze cast members went on to notable careers (including Kadeem Hardison, Rusty Cundieff, Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, Kasi Lemmons, and Jasmine Guy).
Like She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze is a sexy, vibrant, gloriously alive comedy that grows darker as it proceeds, and climaxes with a jarring, disturbing act of sexual violation. In this case, Dean Big Brother Almighty tests Jane’s commitment to the Gammas, and to him, by making her have sex with Half-Pint, who needs to lose his wretched virginity to prove himself a real Gamma man, and by extension, a real man. Jane acquiesces tearfully, and in a way that betrays her revulsion at what she’s being asked to do. It’s a horrifying sequence that grows even more disturbing when Jane tearfully tells her boyfriend what she’s done for him, and he rejects her. The sequence illustrates the horrible things people will do for the sake of getting by and fitting in, and serves as a queasily powerful shorthand for all the soul-shredding compromises we make in our lives for the sake of being accepted, even by people we should shun. Like the rape in She’s Gotta Have It, it leaves a sour aftertaste, and gives the film seemingly nowhere to go.
Having written himself and his film into a corner, Lee ends it with Dap, that fiery exemplar of righteousness, screaming “Wake up!” at the entire student body of Morris. His motivational directive is fuzzy to the point of meaningless, like “Unlearn,” the slogan of John Singleton’s similar but much less accomplished college film, Higher Learning. It’s a bullshit ending, in other words, one that tries to wrap up all the preceding messiness and darkness with a bumper-sticker-ready message. But it’s also a strangely inspired bullshit ending, a righteous cry for a complacent, oblivious society to start thinking long and hard about the way we live and the values we teach. Lee ended his first studio film with the urgent cry, “Wake up!” In the years since, he hasn’t stopped delivering the same message, with varying degrees of shrillness and success.
School Daze is clearly near to Lee’s heart; he recently told Black & Sexy TV that he’s completed a screenplay for a follow-up that would chronicles the events of Mission College a quarter-century after the events of the first film and bring back Laurence Fishburne as Dap, this time as Mission’s president. Heaven knows whether the film will ever get made, but the fact that Lee has finished a screenplay speaks to both the film’s enduring appeal and his intense fondness for it.
School Daze’s cult and cast didn’t escape Hollywood attention: A number of its cast members reunited for A Different World, a Cosby Show spin-off vehicle for Lisa Bonet (who quickly departed the series) that was also set in a historically black college. A Different World was to School Daze what Happy Days was to American Graffiti: a television knock-off that made the same basic premise safe and easily digestible for a prime-time audience. That’s what tends to happen to firebrands; their anger and originality are co-opted by the mainstream. Yet for all his mainstream success, Spike Lee refuses to become safe. There’s something strangely reassuring about the knowledge that the incandescent rage that powered School Daze still burns brightly inside Lee, and the passing of time has only dimmed it slightly.
Up next: Unbreakable