Dir. Spike Lee. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Giancarlo Esposito, Spike Lee
Mission College, like any university, appears to be governed both practically and socially by a set of totally arcane rules, held by a small number of gatekeepers who seem not entirely sure how best to use those rules to benefit the college, their groups, or even themselves. What makes this situation worse is that those rules are not just rules, but that everything is given a heightened sense of meaning, placing value on people based on how well they can follow those rules, and that has to be laid at the feet of Mission College. Mission is mentioned in the same breath in the film alongside Spelman, Clark Atlanta, and Morehouse (where, of course, Lee himself went to school), and the school’s motto is “Uplift the Race.” Under the guise of this sort of prestige and pride, everything is forced to matter more. Petty personal disputes and overblown traditions aren’t just college norms; they’re college norms where the winner can lay claim to having uplifted the race. The prize is too big when the competitions are too small.
The obvious example here is Julian (Esposito), who rules the fraternity brothers and especially the pledges of Gamma Phi Gamma with absolute authority. As Dean Big Brother Almighty (said always as “all-my-tee“) the first of his name, he giveth and he taketh away. He can command a pledge, the aptly nicknamed Half-Pint (Lee), to have sex because “he ain’t pledging no virgins.” He can command his girlfriend, Jane (Tisha Campbell-Martin) to have sex with Half-Pint, even though that’s far from her preference. (“You love Gamma, don’t you?” Julian coos to her.) The classic frat initiations are as subtle as a sock full of nickels. Half-Pint is convinced that he would be a fine addition to Gamma, and he wants to prove it through the several tasks which come with earning a place. They are as simple as being a hype man at a Gamma Ray (the auxiliary to Gamma Phi Gamma) show, or as eating Alpo. They are as complicated as reciting the special names and gestures associated with each Gamma brother, or as trying to pick up a girl who will consent to a night of fornication with a 5’5″ kid so he can be appropriately virile. The finishing touch is a ceremony of sorts where the pledges hold out a lit torch in front of them – their arms, of course, must not move – and the Gammas scream at them and tell them they’ll never make it, while Gamma Rays give encouragement. In Julian’s world, the goal, at least, is transparent enough. Complete the tasks under the set of undecipherable rules and you get a certain reward. Even though the tasks are profoundly stupid – the treatment of women is abominable – the humiliation heaped on people who are trying to become “brothers” is bizarre – the gift he can give is clear as day.
Dap (Fishburne) offers no reward, but in return the rules he plays by and expects others to follow are a little clearer. Give up all your fun and join in policies to convince some higher-ups to divest from the South African apartheid government, and you’re good with Dap. It’s unclear, exactly, what his reward is for doing so. Dap is clearly passionate about his movement, and yet much of it is clearly performative. He dresses in outfits which speak to his pan-Africanist sensibilities and spends much of Friday wearing a “Soweto” shirt. He seems to relish being in charge of the divestment group on campus, so much so that he doesn’t have ties to any other similar movements on other campuses. He has a long-term girlfriend, Rachel (Kyme), although Rachel openly wonders if Dap isn’t dating her because she’s dark-skinned. Dap denies it, but he is also vocal in his opinion that most light-skinned African-Americans are “wannabees.” The only light-skinned person he seems to respect at all, interestingly, is Julian; he believes that there is a smart person underneath the frat brother persona. Indeed, Julian even has an opinion about the unifying position that Dap has, which is that he’s going to try to identify more with his fellow Americans than with people thousands of miles away that he has nothing in common with.
(In the beginning of the film, Rachel and Jane have something of a proxy war, complete with song-and-dance number, for their boyfriends. Jane and the Gamma Rays are light-skinned, have elaborately done hair, and some even wear contact lenses to make their eyes lighter. Rachel and her friends are dark-skinned, have more natural hair, and don’t belong to an exclusive club. The “Straight and Nappy” sequence is a highlight of the film, and one which displays a truth that Dap and Julian would be uncomfortable with: the women are funnier, wittier, and more interesting when they have their fights than their posturing male friends. I died when the Jane crowd pulls out a set of paper masks with Hattie McDaniel as Mammy to make fun of the Rachels; the Rachels respond with their own set of masks depicting Elvis. The rules for women are more physical than they are for men, and they’re laid down more simply as well. The rewards, however, seem to be pretty limited one way or another; they are intimately tied to the college boys, and not many of them, not even the bright ones, appear to be worth very much.)
The film takes place over Homecoming weekend, which is especially fitting. For one thing, no one has to go to class, which would be a serious intrusion on the plot of the film. It also proves to be a good way to bring adults into the story. The college’s administrators seem more or less clueless. When they bring Dap, a senior, into the offices and tell him to give up his divestment talk and class boycott at the risk of expulsion, it’s thoroughly strange. Dap doesn’t seem to understand it himself – why aren’t they more supportive of black people in South Africa? Similarly (and hilariously) out of touch is Coach Odom (Ossie Davis), whose pregame speech to his players is about a million times more memorable than Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday monologue. It begins with a preacher’s touch, a discussion about having labored for something important. And he then asks his fired-up players a series of questions. Do you want to embarrass your fans, family, friends, and fellows in the stands? Do you want to lose homecoming for the fourth straight year? “Do you want me,” he says quietly, “to lose my job?” He is as clueless on the field as he is in the locker room, apparently, because Mission loses by something like fifty points. No wonder the students have to live by their own set of rules: the adults’ rules are just plain dumb.
The only adults who seem to make any sense at all are the ones who live in town. At a KFC, Dap and his five friends are eating their lunch when they’re accosted by a small group of local men, led by someone with a curious resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson (who is a graduate of Morehouse, like Lee, but unlike Lee was kicked out of school for a stretch because he held the board of trustees hostage) asks the undergrads if they understand what it must be like seeing a crop of college kids come in with more money, with more opportunity. There aren’t a lot of jobs out there for the townies who live and die in the same place; they’re competing with intruders who always had a leg up on them. One of Dap’s friends asks later if he thinks that guy was right; is it possible that Dap and company, who fight for the oppressed men and women in South Africa, could be part of some kind of oppression in their own environment? It’s a question which applies to everyone at Mission, not merely the socially conscious set. When Dap begins his (and everyone else’s) Sunday morning by screaming at the campus to “Wake up!” the only characters who don’t make an appearance some way or another are the town men. Surely, though, they must be on the top of Dap’s mind.