Vaughn "Dap" Dunlap (Fishburne) is a politically conscious black American student at Mission College, a leading historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia whose motto is "Uplift the Race." The college administration is portrayed as inept.
Dunlap leads anti-apartheid demonstrations encouraging students and school administrators to divest from South Africa. When his buddies go into town, they find the local boys are not impressed with their activities, but think of them as privileged college boys. Open conflict breaks out between the groups.
Dunlap feuds with Julian Eaves (Esposito) aka Dean Big Brother Almighty of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity, Incorporated. This group is characterized as "wannabees," as in "wannabe better than me." The fraternity brothers are preparing for a big college football weekend and Homecoming parties. Meanwhile, Dap's younger cousin, Darrell (Lee), aka "Half-Pint," is a Gamma pledge.
The Gamma women's auxiliary, the Gamma Rays, who are sleek and light-skinned, confront non-Greek black co-eds, particularly over skin color and the nature of their hair. Some of the Rays use contact lens to change eye color.
Vanessa L. Williams was originally considered for the role of Jane Toussaint. However, due to her recent dethroning from her Miss America title because of controversy over nude photos published in Penthouse, Williams turned down the role. She cited a sex scene between Jane and Julian (Dean Big Brother Almighty) and said she wanted to distance herself from that image.
Spike Lee was so impressed by Tisha Campbell's singing performance in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and as a result, he cast her for the role of Jane.
The film received positive reviews for its exploration of issues within the black community. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times noted, "There is no doubt in my mind that 'School Daze,' in its own way, is one of the most honest and revealing movies I've ever seen about modern middle-class black life in America." He also noted its frank exploration of issues of discrimination within the black community related to skin tone and nature of hair. He said it was significant as a film with a "completely black orientation. All of the characters, good and bad, are black, and all of the character's references are to each other."
Spike Lee arranged for the two groups of actors to stay in separate hotels during filming. The actors playing the "wannabees" were given better accommodations than the ones playing the "jigaboos." This favoritism contributed to tension on the set, which showed in the on-camera animosity between the two camps. (The producers used a similar tactic in filming Animal House, with similar results.) In School Daze, the method approach yielded strong results — the fight that occurs at the step show between Dap's crew and the Gammas was not in the script. On the day the scene was shot, the fight broke out between the two sides. Lee ordered the cameras to keep rolling.
Officials of Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University asked Lee to stop filming on the campuses before he completed his work because the colleges' Boards of Directors had concerns on how he was portraying the historically black colleges in the film. Lee had to finish filming at the neighboring Morris Brown College.
Kadeem Hardison, Darryl M. Bell, and Jasmine Guy became principal cast members on The Cosby Show spin-off, A Different World — a TV series about life at a historically black college. Other School Daze cast members also appeared on A Different World, including Dominic Hoffman, Tisha Campbell, Art Evans, Guy Killum and Roger Guenveur Smith.
In 2009, Alicia Keys paid homage to School Daze in the music video for her song "Teenage Love Affair". (She imitated scenes including the rally in front of the school building, the pajama party, and the scene where Tisha Campbell and her court perform at coronation.)
"Da Butt," written by Marcus Miller and Mark Stevens, and performed by the group E.U. (who appear in the film), hit number 1 on Billboard's R&B chart and number 35 on its Pop chart. The School Daze soundtrack also features the song, "Be One," written by Bill Lee and performed by Phyllis Hyman, who also appears in the film.