Part Breakfast Club, part Dangerous Minds, and a lot Save the Last Dance, Take the Lead fictionalizes the same events that inspired last year’s Mad Hot Ballroom. In the shift from documentary to “inspired by,” the kids are moved from elementary to high school, where there’s more fodder for screen-friendly interpersonal drama to drown out the dancing. Something about Take the Lead rings as false as its version of New York, which is actually Toronto, with a few NYC street scenes for “color.” Though surely entertaining, Take the Lead perpetuates stereotypes in a cumbersome celebration of multiculturalism.
Antonio Banderas stars as Pierre Dulaine, a professional dancer who teaches ballroom dancing to a group of detention-hall kids at a New York City high school. Banderas is convincing as a dancer, effectively reserved and earnest. From the opening scene, Pierre’s clean-cut, upper-class world, fluidly shot and brightly lit, contrasts immediately with the lower class students’ environment, where shakier camerawork and green-tinged lighting suggest a kind of chaos. Cue an incident intersecting the two worlds—Pierre sees one of the students bashing the principal’s (Alfre Woodard) car—and he embarks on his new mission to “change their lives.”
We’ve seen this before: Pierre’s patronizing attitude is masked as “good intentions.” There’s something disturbing about the recent proliferation of films with this “save the inner city kids” motif. The insinuation, of course, is that they need saving, and that unlike their hip-hop dancing, Pierre’s “high culture” ballroom style will teach them about “respect.” Though the students fuse their dancing with Pierre’s, in the end the kids become “civilized,” donning gowns and ties to enter the ballroom competition.
Mad Hot Ballroom had the same presumption of “civilizing,” but that film showed kids from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and classes and didn’t focus on particular individuals, and so avoided condescension. Take the Lead tries to portray racial and class harmony by having everyone—black, brown, white, upper or lower class—dance to hip-hop at the end of the competition, but it leaves the violence underneath this harmony unproblematized. Once everyone has taken off their formal wear, how will the deplorable conditions of the students’ lives have changed?
When the protégés-to-be initially resist his hoity-toity (or “punk ass,” as one boy calls it) manner, Pierre is not above cheap gimmicks to grab their attention. He brings in a stunning (and snobby) female dancer from his academy, Morgan (professional dancer Katya Virshilas), and the camera objectifies her (approximating the impressed kids’ perspectives) as she performs an eroticized dance with Pierre. The boys want her, and the girls want to be her: they’re duly hooked. Though supposedly around their age, Morgan serves as a role model. Yet why would any of the kids want to be like her? She’s portrayed as nothing short of despicable throughout the film, except for a final moment when she turns very briefly generous.
True to the genre’s form, Pierre takes a particular interest in one student, Rock (Rob Brown), the boy he saw smashing up the principal’s car. Peering through a chain-link fence, Pierre literally speaks down to Rock. The boy challenges this strict teacher/student relationship when he asks, “You can know about me, but I can’t know anything about you?” The teacher’s transformation follows, as he must also learn from his students.
For instance, sometimes survival is difficult on a basic material level. Rock is the “good” son forced into a “bad” life in order to support his mother and alcoholic father. As he slowly warms up to Pierre, Rock doesn’t want to follow in the path of his older brother, who was killed in a gang fight. Caught between lucrative crime (and his boys) and ballroom dancing (and a girl), Rock makes a tough but predictable decision at film’s end. But the film goes for reductive answers rather than complex questions: why does he have to forsake his friends and family in order to realize his “potential”?
Another character at odds with her family, Caitlin (Lauren Collins), is a debutante whose mother pressures her into lessons at Pierre’s uptown dance academy. She decides to join the kids in the detention class instead. They accuse her of “slumming,” but she explains, “I feel better up here than I do where I live.” They accept this answer, somewhat unbelievably, and Caitlin develops a friendship with her dance partner, a large black boy significantly called “Monster” (Brandon Andrews).
Their relationship culminates in a scene reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. With Caitlin’s encouragement, Monster is transformed into a graceful dancer, dashing in a suit and ready to offer her a steadying arm as she descends the ballroom staircase in a white gown for her cotillion. While Caitlin’s challenge to family tradition by dancing with Monster instead of her cousin might initially seem progressive, the scene is more about the backwardsness of her mother’s social set, an easy target at best. Take the Lead celebrates Caitlin’s openness to change and Pierre’s transformative powers without asking why his other students are in detention in the first place.