In class, I made the comment that I was “annoyed” at the fraternities story line that constituted so much of the plot of Spike Lee’s School Daze. A part of me still feels this way: I did not enjoy watching all of the pledges complete the various humiliating (and, in some cases, homoerotic) tasks set before them by their soon-to-be brothers, and I was much more interested in other aspects of the film. In fact, I was much more interested in the sororities story line, which provided insightful commentary on the divide between dark-skinned and light-skinned African Americans, which paralleled the divide between black women who try to change or hide their stereotypically black traits (such as the texture of their hair and the color of their eyes) and those who do not. In the film, Lee gives a name to this divide: the war between the “Wannabes” and the “Jigaboos.” Lee even accentuates said battle with a pretty fantastic musical number.
But I digress. Like I mentioned above, I found the fraternities plot line tiresome and trite. Had the movie been this plot line alone, School Daze would have felt similar to the innumerable frat movies I’ve watched over the past ten years, albeit one with an almost all-black cast. But since Thursday’s class, I’ve learned much more about these African American fraternities, and more about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in general. My research has shifted my perception of black fraternities and of the movie in general. I learned, for instance, that both Martin Luther Kind Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois were members of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity that was founded at Cornell University, and that Lee portrays as the “good” fraternity in School Daze.
My research has also led me to a new question. Rather than question why Lee includes the fraternities at all, I wonder why Lee chooses the portray the fraternities so negatively. The good in them is barely exposed. Perhaps the final scene, in which Dap, the leader of the Alphas, runs around campus at sunrise and orders everyone to “Wake Up!” and Julian, the leader of the Gamma Phi Gammas, joins him in his quest, could be interpreted as a moment of brotherhood fostered by Greek life. But this interpretation is a little bit of a stretch. Instead, it truly seems as though Lee wants to illuminate the negative aspects of fraternities and, by extension, HBCUs.
Below is a link to a video in which Lee explains his thoughts on the issue and a transcription of his words.
“We show all the ills of these organizations. In fact, after I finished Moorehouse, a brother died pledging Alpha Phi Alpha. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get into this fraternity thing, or this sorority thing for that matter. It always amazes me the amount of abuse and punishment people will put up with, just to belong to a group. To any organization. I mean they will fuck you up. As I said before, we shot this film at my alma mater Morehouse College. But after three weeks we were kicked off campus. The president of the school felt that this film was going to be a negative image of black higher institutions of education. And he kicked us off campus. He had a problem with who we cast for the school president, Joe Seneca. I’m ashamed to say it, but he said he looked too much like a Sambo [an offensive term for a person of mixed race]. So. In a lot of ways the stuff we were doing in the film was happening to us at the same time as we were making the film. As a matter of fact, after this film came out, I wasn’t really invited back to Morehouse for several years. Really until the guy that was president left. But now I’m on the Board of Trustees, so it’s been a long while. But that was really hurtful at the time.”
– Spike Lee