historicization

School Daze | Male Aesthetic | Midterm

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While we have discussed at length the conflict of aesthetic between Black women in School Daze, we have not entirely discussed how Lee portrays and constructs the male aesthetic within the movie. The women’s specifically aestheticized experiences of racism reveal not only that a woman’s physical appearance is inherently political, but also that African American standards of beauty are shaped by whiteness. Do White-centric standards of appearance and masculinity affect the men? Males’ physical appearance in the movie does not form a strict binary like it does for the women, but rather plays along tropes of power and authority. Lee illustrates through his inclusion of G Phi G and Da Fellas, an aesthetic determined by power and subordination.

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School Daze | Considering Temporality

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Initially, School Daze seems to be a film based on containment. The setting is, for the most part, restricted to the college campus. The other striking element of the film is that the plot is contained to just a single weekend. The actual events and their implications, however, transcend the temporal constraints that they are seemingly confined to.

Notions of temporality are reaffirmed by the film’s opening. School Daze begins with a three-minute montage featuring a series of historical images portraying landmark moments and figures from black history. Lee begins with connections to a wide spectrum of time, a wealth of historical moments. However, he quickly brings the viewer back into the present moment with a pan of the Mission College pennant and signifier that today is Friday. Part of this naming of the day is to bring the viewer out of the lengthy journey they just went on by way of the montage, but also to give an everyday, timelessness to the events about to take place. This isn’t Friday, April 12th, this is any given Friday. The pairing here plays on the consistency of the problems that resonant from the montage, as they transcend the constraints of time, remaining problematic today.

After this initial grounding, we see a quick transition to a consideration of apartheid through Dap’s speech. School Daze makes these transitions throughout the film, pushing out of the restrictive setup of the film to include commentary about historical moments and movements. It’s striking that moments of transitions are typically marked by the pan of the Mission College pennant. Pennants typically serve as a symbol of an institution, perhaps something rooted in a deep history. The pennants act as a trigger that forces viewers to consider the historical context. A college campus is the perfect place to make these connections as the pennants often evoke a sense of tradition and dependence on history.

Part of what makes Lee able to reference various historical moments in just the span of one weekend (and make it work!) is his use of indirect symbols and objects that evoke the sentiments of these historical events, such as the pennant. In the example below, note the looming bell featured behind Dap. While this bell functions as the vehicle to “wake up” the campus, it also evokes various other sentiments (Liberty bell, religion, etc.). The use of symbols allows viewers to make their own connections amongst the myriad historical contexts explored, giving the film even more ability to stretch beyond its time constraints, both literally and within the film’s plot.

School Daze Dap

This article comments on Lee’s manipulation of the historical context of the film and considers the role of School Daze in Lee’s ability to assert himself as a well-diversified filmmaker. By considering Lee’s legacy there’s apparent historicization happening, too. Do we consider School Daze a defining film for Lee? What’s at stake in this inherent historicization of a current filmmaker?

Anti-Semitism in Mo Better Blues: Contextualizing Lee’s Responses to Backlash

When we examine the historicization of Lee’s films, we can generally find a consistency in his thoughtful grasp of racial dynamics. Whether in portraying an unbiased picture of racial tensions in Do the Right Thing, the complex attitudes clashing in all black communities in School Daze, or the survey of racial diversity in Inside Man, Lee develops multidimensional characters of different races and maintains a powerfully nuanced conception of racial themes and dynamics.

That usual tastefulness and intelligence only makes the portrayal of the Flatbush brothers as crooked Jewish stereotypes in Mo’ Better Blues all the more jarring. In addition to their speech patterns and gesticulations, their cruel, unscrupulous, and greedy nature clearly telegraph a Jewish caricature. Whether claiming that “everyone is crooked” or threatening a lawsuit against Bleek, the problematic nature of the caricature is two-fold: when played for laughs, it is at the expense of Jews; when presented more seriously, Lee appears to be offering a stark statement on Jewish exploitation of blacks in the music industry—either option suggests a negative, shallowly developed portrayal compared to Lee’s usual depth of character.

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After Bleek and Giant are beaten in the alley, the brothers briefly suggest sympathy before insisting that the band return to the stage, prioritizing the club’s “full house” over the safety of the employees they’ve exploited. Their final onscreen moments are sitting in the empty club lamenting the night’s cancellation before they are left in darkness. The visual play of this final scene implies that the two are irrevocably tied to the club itself—the film effectively abandoning them within its walls—suggesting that they’re existence is symbiotic with money and business. While the remaining characters go on to right mistakes and repair relationships, the Flatbush brothers go on unseen: unceremoniously villainous and stereotyped through and through.

flatbush2

The portrayal of the Flatbush brothers did not go unnoticed, and it generated much controversy after release. I propose that the more shallow conception of race in Mo’ Better Blues compared to Lee’s more tasteful, nuanced portrayals in other films may be due to the shifted focus on character study rather than broad themes of race, but that is only a personal interpretation. I gathered several quotes from Lee responding to the backlash to hopefully contextualize his intentions with the Flatbush brothers and his attitudes towards racial representations in the film industry, of which he has proven historically vocal.

“I couldn’t make an anti-Semitic film”…“[it’s] a fact” [that Jews run Hollywood] (quoted in James).

This defense might be getting at an accurate statistic, but it seems like a shallow excuse: the Jewish population in Hollywood does not preclude an insensitive portrayal, particularly when it is not the focus of the film as is the case here.

Referring to studio executives that worked on the film: ”I am not anti-Semitic. Do you think Lew Wasserman, Sidney Sheinberg or Tom Pollock would allow it in my picture?” (quoted in James).

In a similar vein to the previous quote, this strikes me as the equivalent of saying you cannot be racist because you have black friends: the studio heads might not have been particularly offended, but that does not mean that viewers would not have a different interpretation of the material, as many evidently were.

“Here’s the thing, though: It’s more than being a stereotype…In the history of American music, there have not been Jewish people exploiting black musicians? In the history of music? How is that being stereotypical? For me, that’s like saying, like the NBA is predominantly black. Now, if that makes me anti- Semitic …” (quoted in Levy)

Here we see a turning point in Lee’s unapologetic response: rather than indicating that he did not intend to portray a stereotype, Lee flies in the opposite direction and contextualizes his characters not as caricatures, but instead grounds them in a historical paradigm of exploitation. The scene in which the brothers extort Bleek certainly feels like a social statement on Lee’s part when examined with this quote in mind–whether or not a viewer feels that this historical argument is sufficient justification is very much still in question.

Lee felt that critics were holding him to a “higher moral standard than what they have required of white filmmakers who stereotype blacks” (quoted in Page).

Perhaps it is not Lee’s status as a black filmmaker that places him under heightened scrutiny, but rather his very forward self-positioning in racial matters both on and off-screen. Still, I lack the evidence to really refute his response, though whether that justifies a shallow portrayal of race feels less affirmative.

What do you make of the implications of the content and juxtaposition of these quotes?

Sources for quotes:

http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1990-08-29/news/9003120922_1_stereotypes-with-sharks-smiles-white-filmmakers-mo-better-blues

http://nymag.com/movies/profiles/19144/

http://www.nytimes.com/1990/08/16/movies/critic-s-notebook-spike-lee-s-jews-passage-benign-cliche-into-bigotry.html?pagewanted=all