Plainly well-intentioned, Sylvain White’s Stomp the Yard is also oddly ponderous, considering its focus on extremely athletic, often airborne stepping. As performed by the erstwhile L.A. crunk battler DJ (Columbus Short), this self-asserting, crew-establishing activity is repeatedly thrilling — even if the frame cuts too frequently and the slow motion seems strangely sentimental. Once DJ makes his way into a fraternity at the fictional “Truth University,” the movie has no way out, however: the metaphors are overwhelming.
DJ initially channels his shoulder-chippy anger at “the system” though crunk, and his innovative moves make him a crowd favorite. As the first, lengthy competition scene in Stomp the Yard lays out, DJ is dedicated not only to the art form, but also to winning. Even when it makes sense to back off a challenge against a notoriously violent crew, he pushes on, determined to put it in their faces that he and his boys are the best. As soon as his brother Duron (Chris Brown) suggests that they should leave it alone and DJ resists his advice, you know what’s happening next. Sure enough, as DJ and Duron make their way along an ominously dark and abandoned lot, they’re jumped. The gun pulled on Duron is only what you expect.
After a minute or so of grieving over the bloody body (also in slow motion), DJ is shipped off to the next chapter in his life: he’ll stay with his father’s brother and his wife in Atlanta, where “Truth” is located. Because his Uncle Nate (Harry Lennix) handles landscaping and maintenance at the school he “pulls a few strings” and gets DJ in. This also means DJ “owes” Nate, and by extension, Aunt Jackie (Valarie Pettiford), a situation filled with predictable though barely touched-on tensions. At the same time, DJ also feels guilt and despair over the loss of Duron, channeled into — you guessed it — more anger.
At Truth (even writing the name feels burdensome), DJ is recruited by two fraternities who think his skills will help them win the national championship; he selects Theta Nu Theta because its leader, the very earnest Sylvester (Brian White), extols the virtues of brotherhood more than winning the title (though of course, everyone focuses on winning the title). (DJ might also like the snake they’ve adopted as their mascot/sign, as it’s moderately cooler than the wolf persona taken up by Mu Gamm Xi.)
It helps that DJ’s charismatic roommate Rich (Ne-Yo, who is adorable here) is also pledging Theta, as they can share the very hard work stepping involves; the film includes lots of slow-motioned montages showing their practicing and drilling, with edits distracting from the frankly incredible break-dancing-style moves that DJ choreographs. (one scene — slow motion runing over sunlit hills, hard chests glistening — seems like an ad for some men’s fragrance, and actually evoked laughter at the screening I attended.) Though at first his fellows worry that he’s “too ghetto,” eventually DJ — whose pledge name is “Knucklehead” — makes his case. “We need to make the steps fit our rhythm,” he argues persuasively, convincing old-school stylist Sylvester that his skills will bring the win — this time, hopefully, without the extreme cost.
DJ’s other major move is his wooing of the other fraternity leader’s girlfriend, April (Meagan Good). This irks said leader, Grant (Darrin Henson), no end, as he is possessive and brash, and not a little aggressive when it comes to claiming what’s his. April also happens to be the daughter of the university president, Dr. Palmer (Allan Louis), as possessive as his future son-in-law and holding a longstanding grudge against Uncle Nate. The melodrama is punctuated by practices and battles (in the club, on the quad), scenes designed to articulate DJ’s evolving emotional dilemma, much like dance scenes do in Fred Astaire movies.
DJ’s is a decidedly masculine melodrama. Not only does he contend with various paternal disapprovals (though his own dad never appears on screen, his uncle thinks stepping is a waste of time and April’s dad warns him, “My daughter is not some shorty for you to mess with!”), but he must also come to terms with his own competitive hostilities (with Sylvester and Grant). And, at last, he must face his feelings about Duran’s death, so bottled up and debilitating (except when the plot calls for him to dance, or seduce April, or defend Rich, or outdance a rival, or… actually, his angst is only visible on occasion).
At the same time, DJ has to come up with a killer step routine for the group to bring to nationals (helpfully narrated by Sway, for MTV News!). Luckily, he’s inspired by Truth University’s amazing array of former sorority and fraternity members, enshrined in Heritage Hall: Esther Rolle, Hines Ward, Michael Jordan, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King, among others. Yes, it’s a strained conceit, though White’s movie does well to recall these powerful embodiments of resistance, motivation, and “truth.”