Save the Last Dance

(Thomas Carter, USA, 2001)


Themes of race are quietly sneaking back into mainstream American cinema, if one can judge this trend from the evidence of Finding Forrester (2000) and Save the Last Dance. Neither of these are controversial or ground-breaking movies, but they focus on the sometimes fraught, sometimes liberating, everyday cultural interactions between black and white Americans.

In Save the Last Dance, teenage Sara (Julia Stiles) finds herself living and studying in a predominantly black, working class area of Chicago with her father. The trauma of her mother's death has turned Sara away from her passion for ballet. But a friendship with Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), a hip-hop devotee, reawakens her dreams.

Most Hollywood romances or comedies that deal with racial interaction from a mainly white perspective are obsessed with one topic, whether they admit it or not – the struggle of whites to be as "cool", relaxed, sexy and authentic as their black role models. This struggle produces in them both idolatry and resentment, as in Norman Mailer's famous '60s celebration of the "white Negro", or more recently James Toback's weird Black and White (2000).

As written by Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards, Save the Last Dance is unafraid of putting Sara in situations that reveal how uncool she really is. An early scene of Sara trying to hold her own in a black dance club is excruciatingly funny. Even better is the extended sequence – reminiscent of Footloose (1984) – in which she slowly learns, under Derek's tutelage, to loosen up her bodily movements.

Save the Last Dance joins Center Stage (2000), Billy Elliot (2000) and the Australian Bootmen (2000) in the early twenty-first century revival of dance movies. It is a trend I welcome. Despite its predictable, corny intrigues (Will Sara have to choose between ballet and hip-hop? Will she finally grieve for her Mom and bond with her Dad?), this film has a wonderful spirit and energy.

Director Thomas Carter, as he showed in the awkward Swing Kids (1993), likes to load his dance dramas with serious social themes. Sara's new life develops well until she hits the exclusionist black politics of her companions, including her best friend, Chenille (Kerry Washington) – who argue that whites should not appropriate black culture, and especially that white women should not poach black men.

Ultimately, the film preaches a one-world-one-culture message of integration. Like in Finding Forrester, the depiction of a black community goes easy on the usual, sensationalist elements of drugs, sex, crime and violence. Derek knows a few bad eggs, and Chenille raises a child on her own, but most tensions are smoothed over once the dancing starts.

Stiles just goes from strength to strength. One of America's finest teen actors, she brings an absolutely loveable combination of sullenness, vulnerability, toughness and grace to her part. And she can dance, too.

MORE Stiles: The Business of Strangers

© Adrian Martin April 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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