Hip-hop for Respect
From the start, Save the Last Dance looks like just another teen romance film. It has all the familiar ingredients—the pretty couple, a high school setting, troubles with parents, troubles with cliques, and a major ambition to be achieved. However, it also brings more than you might expect, namely, two talented actors as the pretty couple—Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas—and a script, by Duane Adler, that for the most part, treats hip-hop culture, its teen protagonists, and its audience with some respect.
The film opens with Sara (Stiles) riding a train from her Illinois hometown to the big city, Chicago. As she gazes sadly out the window at the rushing landscape, she remembers for you the circumstances of her move. Once a talented young ballerina with great ambitions, now she’s grieving the loss of her mother, who died in a car wreck while rushing to be at her daughter’s Juilliard audition. The flashback lays out this trauma as it will affect young Sara for the rest of the film—lots of scenes showing hugs and kisses with mom, then, Sara blowing her audition at precisely the moment that her mother’s car crashes. Of course, she feels enormously guilty, believing that her mother would still be alive if it weren’t for her.
So now Sara faces a new beginning, living with her scrungey jazz musician father Roy (Terry Kinney, strong in an underwritten part), in a tiny apartment on the South Side. Immediately, she’s plunged into a world that is completely opposite of her previous experience. Not only has she given up dancing, but she’s now confronted with a student population, where she is—on screen, anyway—the only white member (on the phone, Sara’s best friend from back home asks if she’s seen any murders and promises to pray for her). But Sara is not easily intimidated. On her first day in English class, she tangles with Derek (Thomas), when he challenges her good-student’s formalist analysis of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, by saying that it served a more important social and political function, by making “white folks back then” realize that violence could invade even their safe Midwestern homes, adding that it was an old story and even an old technique for black folks, who knew—as Sara does not—that Richard Wright had already made the case in his work.
If all this sounds a little heady for a teen romance, it is. It also demonstrates that Save the Last Dance has more on its mind than the usual angst over what to wear to the prom. Sara not only has to adapt to a culture that most suburban white kids only glimpse via Jay Z cds or bling bling videos on MTV, but she also has to come to terms with her own limited self-consciousness, including the fact that, as a privileged kid, she’s never had to grapple with the daily issues—violence, fear, poverty—common to so many other populations, both urban and rural. This isn’t to say that Save the Last Dance is flawless or even wholly enlightened. It falls back on a few cliches to get its points across, for instance, pitting Sweet Sara against a Bad Girl (Derek’s jealous ex-girlfriend, played by Bianca Lawson). They engage in a bit of brutal competition on the dance floor and the basketball court (the fight here is a bit of a surprise—and their inability to talk it out afterwards is actually fine, less contrived than if they had). You’ve likely seen these scenes before in other movies.
Similarly, you’ve also seen Derek’s subplot, specifically, his longtime friendship with his boy Malakai, played by the magnetic rapper Fredro Starr (sorry, Firestarr), late of Onyx. Starr here reprises a role he can probably play in his sleep by now—after doing it in Strapped, Clockers, and last year’s Light It Up, to name a few—that is, the hyperactive, ever-ready-to-roll, bad-boy banger. This business inevitably leads Derek to face a terrible choice, between his own future (college, the white girl) and loyalty to his friend during a neighborhood showdown. Sara’s cliche is equally silly. In her Flashdance trajectory, she’s the “real” (i.e., ballet) dancer, who finally triumphs at her audition for a panel of snobby-looking Juilliard judges when she learns to incorporate (not to say appropriate) “street” knowledge and skills. In this case, she lucks out that Derek, in addition to being a brilliant student, loyal friend, and responsible brother, is also a great hip-hop dancer. Over the course of their informal rehearsals (Derek: “Want to get together sometime, to work on your movies?”), they fall in love.
With all this said, though, Save the Last Dance does offer a relationship that you may not have seen previously, at least not in the shape it takes here. This is the friendship between Sara and Derek’s sister, Chenille (the super-charismatic Kerry Washington), a single mom who’s completing her high school degree and has some definite opinions about what it means for white girls to date black boys. These opinions come to light during a conversation they girls have while sitting in a clinic waiting room full of mothers and babies, and they reveal (without entirely resolving) some sensitive questions that don’t often come up in mainstream teen movies.
For my money, it’s the girls’ friendship that holds the film together. Almost as soon as Sara arrives, Chenille “adopts” her, sitting with her in the cafeteria and bringing her along to Stepps, a hip-hop dance club, where, Sara discovers, all her years of training mean little. Here the dance moves are, as Chenille might say, “slamming” (and they’re choreographed by Fatima, who created the dances in Michael Jackson’s video for “Remember the Time,” Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” and the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life,” among other videos).
It’s true that Sara learns the steps and is accepted by the other kids pretty quickly—hey, it’s a movie. But the dance scenes inject Save the Last Dance with all kinds of energy (not unlike the cheerleading competition scenes in Bring It On), and more importantly, they show just how the girls connect. It’s telling that in the last club scene, under the closing credits, it’s the girls who are dancing together, joyous in their shared love of music and movement. High school movie romances are one thing, but the hip-hop alliances, those are forever.