Long before “Black Hollywood” or “ATLwood” for that matter became popular monikers for Atlanta, Spike Lee was sowing the seeds that would one day help it all come true. “School Daze,” the director’s bold and epic HBCU film shot at his alma mater Morehouse and the Atlanta University Center at large, hit theaters 30 years ago this month. In celebration, “School Daze” will screen at the Fox Theatre on Presidents Day (Feb. 19).
“I’m a cinephile and I know that a whole lot of people, the younger generation, never got to see ‘School Daze’ in a movie theater,” says Lee, explaining the importance of the Fox while hidden in the back seat of an inconspicuous black SUV nestled in the Ponce City Market parking lot. “They only saw a DVD. They never got to be in a theater with other people. And so this is going to be lit.”
The follow-up to his acclaimed 1986 debut, “She’s Gotta Have It,” struck major chords. Although the TV show “A Different World,” the NBC spinoff to “The Cosby Show” set at the fictional Hillman College, started airing in September 1987, months before “School Daze” hit, it didn’t dig as deep. The students at Mission College tackled a long list of issues such as divestment from South Africa, colorism, hair texture, intra-race classism, political activism, structural racism, hazing in fraternities and female self-esteem, especially in sororities, most of which would later surface on “A Different World.”
As beloved as “School Daze” may be today, Lee never forgets that everybody wasn’t thrilled. “There was a woman, a film critic, I remember her name, Abiola Sinclair; she wrote for The Amsterdam News in New York. She said ‘School Daze’ set the black race back 400 years,” he recalls. “There were people who said I was airing dirty laundry with the whole colorism thing. It’s a well-known fact that we were kicked off Morehouse’s campus shooting ‘School Daze’ by then-President Hugh Gloster.”
“School Daze” also featured a cast that included Lee as Half-Pint, a Gamma Phi Gamma pledgee, as well as Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Tisha Campbell, Ossie Davis, Roger Guenveur Smith, Bill Nunn, Samuel L. Jackson and even Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy and Darryl M. Bell from “A Different World.” Most of them would make waves in Hollywood for years to come.
Lee’s inspiration for “School Daze,” which he actually wrote before “She’s Gotta Have It,” was very personal. “I did this film because my father went to Morehouse. My grandfather went to Morehouse. My mother went to Spelman. My grandmother went to Spelman,” shares the Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-bred black film pioneer. “’School Daze’ was my four years at Morehouse, my four years at Atlanta University Center, AU Center, jampacked into a homecoming weekend.”
Although Lee is a Morehouse College alum, he gives a lot of credit for his film success to professor Herb Eichelberger at Clark College (as it was known when he attended prior to evolving into present-day Clark Atlanta University). “He was very instrumental in my development,” Lee emphasizes. “Dr. Herb Eichelberger saw something in me, and he encouraged me to be a filmmaker.”
And 30 years later, Lee is overjoyed to celebrate that fruit with his many fans in the city that nurtured him and gave birth to one of his most cherished films. “We’re encouraging everybody to come out,” he says, noting that general admission tickets are $10. “Wear your school colors, fraternity colors, your sorority colors,” he says, going into pitch mode. “We’ll be selling very special edition ‘School Daze’ merchandise. I’m going to be there. It’s going to be a historic occasion.”
Likening this “School Daze” screening to those of “The Rocky Horror Show,” Lee promises that “it’s going to be interactive.” So much so Lee advises, “If anybody is coming on the 19th to see ‘School Daze’ at the Fox Theatre just to hear the dialogue, don’t come.”
And when the infamous “Da Butt” scene, which former City Council President and one-time mayoral candidate Ceasar Mitchell even participated in as a Morehouse student, comes on, “We’re going to be up in (our) seats doing the butt,” Lee beams.
“School Daze” 30th anniversary screening
7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19. $10 at the Fox Theatre box office; plus fees if you order online. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. foxtheatre.org.