My original 2005 essay on Save The Last Dance:
Warning: My review may not sit well with some people who want life to be seen in rose-colored glasses or the ideology of “colorblindness.”
My view on the 2001 movie, “Save the Last Dance”
I’ve rented the video, “Save the Last Dance,” to find out what the hype was about. It’s just a typical movie about a middle-class suburban white woman dates a black man from the inner city. The movie’s success depends on using dated stereotypes: “angry black woman,” “thuggish black man,” and “innocent” white women. White men, with few exceptions such as Sara’s father, barely register in that inner-city flick. The movie is set in South Side, a predominately black area of Chicago. She’s taken in by her jazz musician father who barely figured in her life. His home, in contrast to his daughter’s large, decorative suburban house, was a small flat. The apartment building where her estranged father Roy lived, was dilapidated and in desperate need of repairs. His apartment was no better. It was sort of unkempt, keeping with the stereotypes of bachelor and artists not having a care in the world. Meanwhile, blond Sara is trying to adjust her life in the inner city, going to Wheatley High, a predominant black high school where students check in going through metal detectors, which were absent in Sara’s old school in Lemont, IL. That says a lot about the racial/class disparities of two neighborhoods. It was at Wheatley where Sara met a gifted young man named Derek. Derek is a very hardworking student who is also college-bound. He’s going to Georgetown to study pediatrics so he can become a doctor. The producers could have shown more black men who are studious and honorable. No, they have to pander to prevailing stereotypes of black men as the thuggish, predatory criminals that populate the flick.
Sara and Derek became fast friends and even was invited by Chenille to dance at “Stepps,” a hip-hop nightclub where Wheatley students party on weekends.
Derek encourages her to start back on her ballet, which she gave up after her mother’s untimely death. Her friend Chenille was a single teenage mother who is making it on her own. She’s struggling to raise and protect her toddler son, Christopher, from pitfalls and obstacles she and her brother suffered. Their mother once served time in jail for drug possession and prostitution and who wasn’t involved in their lives. Black women today formed the fastest growing prison population due to the draconian and racist war on drugs policies. Their kids are being taken away and put into foster care, for rarely do nonblacks adopt “black” kids and “black” parents had to go through a series of bureaucracy which takes up to several years before adopting them. As a result, most black kids are informally taken care of by friends and relatives such as Derek’s and Chenille’s grandmother.
The subject of interracial relationships, they could have done a much better job than that. The movie overemphasize the anger of several black women, while downplaying or minimizing the anger or opposition from whites of both genders. Most movie reviewers said nearly nothing about the opposition of Derek’s male buddies to his budding relationship with Sara, not to mention white opposition to IR. His friends told him that he lost his pride and that he needs to “watch his back,” which is understandable because of society’s persistent opposition to interracial relationships as well as the legacy of history of lynching, imprisonment, and castration of black men pursuing love and marriage across racial lines. The murder of Emmet Till comes to mind. Even today, there’s that fear in which black and biracial black men could be imprisoned, even killed for such things as the young teenage man named Marcus Dixon in Georgia who was imprisoned recently for having a consensual relationship with a teenaged white girl. He was college-bound and gifted like the Derek character in the movie. His friend, Malakai, told his girlfriend that she didn’t belong at Steps and that his ex-girlfriend, played by Bianca Lawson, was the better choice. He felt that by his friend dating outside of the race, he was selling out. Also, the comment by her white friend about Sarah’s living in a “war zone.” To her suburban friend, the inner city of Chicago is “full of violent blacks” who prey upon one another and that is full of hopelessness, bleakness, and despair. She obviously don’t have a clue because she lives in a lily-white world and what white-owned media tells her. She also asked her friend whether her school has white boys because she thinks that one should date/marry within the race and that she wouldn’t find men of color attractive. Then there’s a middle-aged white lady on the train staring at the couple. She evidence her prejudices by her hate stare as well as saying hateful things under her breath. Even her father didn’t want her to date outside of her race by telling her to be home at a “decent hour.” For him, who neglected his daughter for many years, to tell her to be at home while he’s out playing jazz in Chicago’s nightclubs almost every night. In fact, only near the end of the film, did he show her fatherly affection and love.
The portrayal of black women in the movie were mostly negative, with few exceptions. Many of the women were portrayed as single mothers, angry harpies, loose women, immoral, and as victims. I didn’t like the blown out-of proportion fight between Sara and Nikki at the high-school gym nor do I like the cluelessness and naiveté of Sara when confronted by friends, family, and acquaintances at the school. She thinks that everyone lives in the same world, which is based upon her white suburban perspective. She thinks the world is colorblind and is full of fair-minded people. Her friend corrected her by telling about her world and the people in it. It’s not the world Sarah envisioned. It’s a world inhabited by people of color, many of whom are poor, working-class, and lower middle class, with fewer job opportunities, fewer amenities than in affluent white areas. It’s also a world where people are being abused by others, whether the abuse is being conducted by police, store owners, teachers, family members, or strangers passing by. The problem with the movie is that it privilege Sara as being morally superior to the black women in the neighborhood. Mainstream society writes off the inner city as “hopeless area full of poor people of color who couldn’t do better and as an area full of criminals, prostitutes, drug addicts, ‘no-good’ single mothers, and ‘unemployed bums.’” Such views have been articulated by politicians who need middle-class voters for reelection. For example, the late ex-president Ronald Reagan blamed poor black women on welfare for scamming middle and upper class taxpayers. Many scared middle-class voters have bought the idea of poor blacks destroying America and its way of life.
Getting back to Nikki, I think she was mad at Sara because she represent naive, suburban white females who date black men without thinking about their whiteness/pedestalled white femaleness which advantaged them. White females are not that far from black men in the racial/gender hierarchy. They can cross the racial divide if they so desired. Whereas black and biracial black women, having neither racial nor gender privilege cannot. We’re not as valued as other women, especially white women. American society has long placed white women upon pedestals, especially during slavery and segregation periods, while black women bore the brunt of racial and sexual abuse by men of all races, even today. The revelation of Essie Mae Williams’ claim that she is the late Senator Strom Thurmond’s child is a case in point. He abused his 15-year old maid at his parents house in 1924. Her mother didn’t had any right to resist because Mr. Thurmond was the one who had all the power. He could kill her if she didn’t comply. Or the tabloid saga of Britney Spears’ fiance’s spurning of his ex girlfriend Shar Jones while she was still pregnant with their second child. He didn’t think his ex was worthy enough to marry, following the pattern of most white and other non black men who have relationships with black and biracial black women. Chenille, highly angered by her baby’s daddy’s(Kenny) recent dissing, lets Sara know clearly that white girls like her who steal the best black men from under black women’s noses aren’t always cool. She told Sara at an inner-city doctors’ office full of black single mothers with children that she doesn’t understand black womens’ frustration with interracial dating, that Sara, being white, is taking away the decent black men after jail, drugs, and death and that she is using her white privilege in dating successful men of color. I hated that she was forced by the script to apologize. The statement Chenille about life in her inner city and her perception that white women go after only successful black men were most telling. One aspect of white female privilege that is almost never addressed in mainstream media and academia, that is, the naivety of white females when it comes to interracial relationships. The racial
hierarchy in female beauty/femininity needs to be addressed. I
don’t feel the movie adequately address the issue that is between black/biracial and white women in American society today. Colorism in the film is ubiquitous, with the white girl at the center, then Nikki, played by Bianca Lawson. Diggy, who may either be a white or latina, was played by Elisabeth Oas. The said girls are either white or light-skinned. Chenille was played by the brown-skinned, shorter haired Kerry Washington. Momma Dean, Chenille’s grandmother, is played by Dorothy Martin. The white girls in the film were given an aura of innocence, while black women were portrayed as experienced and “loose” as well as victims of either bullies such as Malakai, played by Fredo Starr or irresponsible cads like Kenny, played by Garland Witt and the single mothers at the doctor’s office, where Chenille told Sara to look around and see what’s happening in their community instead of herself.
I give Save the Last Dance one star because it was about Sara and her struggles instead of exploring the struggles of Derek, his sister, and the community which Sara temporarily resides. As a matter of fact, her white skin privilege keeps her from doing so. The example of Sara ‘s quick glance at the single mothers at the doctor’s office after Chenille said some things about life, she still didn’t get it. Or the argument between her and Derek at the school’s dance studio regarding the fight and their future together, saying that the relationship is too hard for her because of the opposition from all sides, while dismissing Derek’s viewpoint on life in the South Side of Chicago. Earlier in the film, she dismiss opposition to her relationship by whites by showing off their display of affection on a subway, where a middle-aged white woman disapproved of them being together, yet black people’s opposition to IR are a big deal to her. Either she is clueless to their views of the world or her whiteness blinds her to certain realities people of color face in everyday life.
When I watched that movie again earlier this year, I see cultural appropriation of hip hop/Black culture by Sara while living in South side Chicago during her Senior year. She befriended Derek’s sister, Chenille and apparently doesn’t have any Black friends save Derek, whom she dates and his sister. She’s very oblivious to Chenelle’s reality as a Black woman living in segregated inner city of Southside Chicago. Like the incident at the clinic. Black women and their children had to use that clinic to provide for their children’s’ health. The treatment there was substandard and brusque. Major hospitals don’t serve the underserved populations, especially People of Color. So, they had to use various clinics and urgent care centers in neighborhoods of Color. That film didn’t address that issue. The majority are single mothers with young children, Black and Biracial.
The film gloss over the role of White men. In my opinion, Chenille was biracial in the film played by Kerry Washington of Scandal fame. There were unacknowledged biracial students in the school as well as the clinic and Stepps, a night club frequented by students. Some of the children at the clinic appeared to be mixed. Nor did the movie emphasized on Sara’s deadbeat father. Sara was lucky because her mother and apparently affluent grandparents provided for her previous lifestyle in Lemont, IL. her father left when she was young. They were estranged in the majority of the movie. Nor did the movie tread on the issue of police brutality and affluent White men coming to the neighborhood for drugs and sex. As in the 2011 movie, The Help, White men are exonerated and exempt from the daily activities of inner city life in Chicago.
the portrayal of Black relationships as being dysfunctional, chaotic, and stereotypical. They show the couples either fighting each other or are together for having a good time at the club dancing, drinking etc. There are no fathers in the film except for Sara’s father and Chenille’s son’s father played by Garland Witt. There are two parent families and functional Black couples in South side Chicago but the movie purposely omit such relationships. The movie have mainly single mothers. Throughout American history, society has always been threatened by genuine Black love and romance. Hollywood merely reflects racist ideology and practices against Black life and culture. They also exploit Black sexuality through club and “inner city” life. That’s reflected in the dancing and tense gender relationships at Strips and at the high school.
Though the movie featured hip hop music, dancing, and culture, the main emphasis is on ballet. Sara used hip hop to enliven her ballet dance steps in order to to win a scholarship at Julliard, the premier arts school in NYC. Throughout the movie, ballet is both portrayed and perceived as stereotypical White, despite the inroads of Women of Color such as Misty Copeland. That narrative also erased historical WOC ballerinas such as Maria Tallchief and Carmen de Lavallade who were ballerinas in their own right. Save The Last Dance portrays Black women as being knowledgable only in often stereotypical vulgar hip hop dancing as portrayed at Stepps.
Save The Last Dance promoted hateful stereotypes of Black men, women, and kids of South side Chicago while putting Sara on a pedestal of “purity and innocence”. That movie traffic in toxic stereotypes and racist mythology.