This one will forever be a struggle for this reviewer to fully connect to, but like any work of art I know there is more than enough to appreciate here if I look with the right lenses. In fact throughout most of this film it isn’t hard to enjoy many of its qualities that at a minimum would keep any audience entertained, even if it indeed misses it’s mark in making the audience think like it would hope to. My only issue revolves around the fact that beneath other more serious concepts the film honorably dedicates itself to, the storyline in the forefront concerns fraternity and sorority life that makes those same subject matters seem trivial, regardless of the shocking reality that it happens to represent. However on the contrary discussions on race, class, and a generational gap in regards to civil rights does make this film seem important, all in spite of some of the most outrageous characters I’ve ever seen, who either accentuate or take away from the film’s impact depending on how you look at it. One thing we all can agree on however, is the music is the real story when it comes to this film, and no matter if the lyrics hit home you’ll be sure to lose yourself in the melodies either way.
Filmed at multiple historically black universities and based on Spike Lee’s own experience at Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University, this film undeniably tackles a bevy of different issues that divide black men and women within their own communities. Whether it’s light skin vs dark skin, ‘good hair’ vs ‘bad hair,’ or revolutionaries vs conformists, the black community (like any other race) has never been completely united on every issue, however what makes their division more critical is that they’ve had to overcome so much together to even get to this point. Yet while those difficult circumstances are easy to empathize with, what isn’t as easy to comprehend are the unusual intricacies involved with Gammas, Alphas, and all the rest of the Greek vernacular that doesn’t seem to reflect the real world at all. Added to that initial confusion is the fact that the characters themselves are also out of this world, led by Lee himself who plays Half-Pint, an impressionable and vulnerable Gamma pledge who would do anything to be accepted to the fraternity. Yet while Lee’s character is appropriately pathetic, the eccentric Giancarlo Esposito plays the Gamma leader known as Dean Big Brother Almighty, whose behavior is so disturbing and unusual that the audience can easily question what this film is even about; and whether or not it’s even worth their time.
On the other end of the spectrum there’s some more modest characters that gives the film some clarity, led by a young Larry Fishburne (not known as Lawrence yet), who is politically conscious and outspoken in his desire to encourage his race to divest to South Africa. Yet where that plan may seem relatively extreme, his demeanor is rather reserved compared to his contemporaries, and Fishburne maintains the only semblance of balance to the film in contrast to all of the hysteria around him. Elsewhere Tischa Campbell and Jasmine Guy are the leaders of the divas or ‘wannabees’ as their rivals call them, led by Rachel Meadows and Joie Lee (Spike’s sister) who themselves are characterized as ‘jigaboos’; all of which pertains to the complexion of their skin and thus what class or status they belong to. It’s important to note that in order to depict this genuine hostility, Lee gave his light skin actresses better accommodations off camera than their dark skin counterparts, a method that was deliberate and effective as the animosity was apparent on screen. It’s also imperative to mention that during filming a majority of the participating schools became so concerned with how they’d be portrayed, that they decided to dissociate themselves from the film altogether, causing Lee to finish the film elsewhere while subsequently reinforcing the significance of why the message needed to be told in the first place.
Yet what could never get lost amidst any controversial subject matter is the fact that this is a musical before anything else, and let’s be clear that the music comes second to nothing else and is unequivocally the star of the show! For starters the first number seems to come out of nowhere (literally out of nowhere), and is undeniably the most provocative as the two female cliques have a powerful dance off in the name of “Straight and Nappy” hair, almost reminiscent of a far more contentious ‘beauty school dropout’ as if this was the urban Grease we’d all been waiting for. All the same if the lyrics have you scratching your head (no pun intended), there is at least the choreography to applaud and admire, if indeed you don’t go a step further to actually educate yourself on the topic no matter how unfamiliar it may be. Further into the story is the memorable talent show in which Tischa Campbell and company lend their voices to the catchy “Be Alone Tonight, followed by the beautiful ballad sung by Keith John entitled “I Can Only Be Me,” which was written and produced by Stevie Wonder and is arguably the film’s thesis in addition to being its most compelling moment. In sharp contrast however the most popular song from the film is performed by E.U. entitled “Da Butt,” and where it lacks in any depth it sure than makes up for it with raw energy and good fun. Fast forward thirty years and with ‘twerking’ becoming a national phenomenon E.U. and Spike Lee must have been ahead of their time.
In closing this film has a lot to like and a lot to be unsure about, most particularly its most climactic moments which leave you more perplexed than at all inspired. One of these moments involve Campbell’s character sleeping with Half-Pint upon Dean Big Brother Almighty’s request, only to later be left heartbroken and humiliated by Mr. Almighty himself, highlighting not only how foul and degrading these few individuals are but also calling into question these sacred college traditions altogether. Hence lies the question of what the message of this film truly is, which isn’t exactly answered in the film’s most defining moment when Fishburne screams for everyone to “WAKE UP;” either perhaps from society’s ills or this film that left us all somewhat dazed and confused.