Spike Lee followed his successful debut She’s Gotta Have It (1986) with this musical comedy set in the all-black white-financed Mission College, poking satirical fun at campus capers while tackling class and colour distinctions which divide the college into two mutually exclusive categories: the haughty, lighter-skinned students who are called “wannabees” (they “wannabee” as bourgeois and white as possible) and the darker-skinned youths who embrace blackness.
Upwardly mobile and politically conservative, the wannabees are led by the dictatorial Julian ‘Big Brother Almighty’ Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito). Demanding that Mission College divest itself of its investments in South Africa, the darker-skinned kids rally around a moral banner raised by student activist Dap Dunlap (Laurence Fishburne).
Besides directing, writing and producing the film, Lee turns in a brief but finely tuned comedic performance as Half Pint, a hapless fraternity pledge who is caught and almost crushed between his loyalties to his activist cousin Dap and Julian, the supreme commander of the prestigious Gamma Phi Gamma frat.
Besides being far too long, though, the film is too fragmented as it shifts from serious stinging commentary to overly lavish musical production numbers.
Overkill abounds in a 1940s musical number set in a beauty salon where the women wage an all-out song and dance battle over the best way to wear their hair, natural or processed. It’s painfully self-indulgent.
Ossie Davis is superb in a bit part as a football coach delivering a hilarious locker room speech to his winless team. And singer Phyllis Hyman looks spectacular and sings beautifully in a scintillating uncredited cameo.
Samuel L Jackson appears in an early small role outside a chicken shop.
Julian ‘Big Brother Almighty’ Eaves
Da Fella Grady
Da Fella Monroe
James Bond III
Da Fella Jordan
Da Fella Edge
Da Fella Booker T
Gammite Doo-Doo Breath
Gammite Double Rubber
Roger Guenveur Smith
Gammite Sir Nose
Gammite Slim Daddy
Samuel L. Jackson
Edward G. Bridges
Albert B. Cooper IV
Toni Ann Johnson