Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Movies: Step Up 2: The Streets

In a failed attempt to convince a friend to watch this with me, who asked, "what is it about?" I named a variety of unenticing prospects: teenagers, dancing, rap, and a dental floss-thin plot line. Of course, all of these were actually extremely enticing to me, and each of the non-white tweens in the school-holiday matinee audience as well, and not a one of us was disappointed (so long as we didn't think too hard about it afterward).

I am sorry to say that I haven't actually seen the original Step Up, but I am assured that none of the characters reprise in The Streets. The dental floss-thin plot of the sequel is as follows: Andie (Briana Evigan—much less annoying than Julia Stiles pretending to dance in Save the Last Dance (in which she is equally unconvincing as ballerina and hip-hopster), but still a bit. . . preppy) happens to be white, but grew up in the less white part of Baltimore, and therefore has been hanging out with some "hooligans" (actually, a pretty off the hook dance crew that occasionally engages in a bit of social pranksterism) that call themselves the four-one-oh. Her guardian can't deal with her anymore, and is about to send her off to live with her aunt in Texas when a friend intervenes and convinces said guardian to give Andie one more chance—if she enrolls in the dance program at the local school of the arts. Here, Andie is momentarily ridiculed for not being able to dance inside the box, but Chase (yes, Chase, danced by Robert Hoffman), the hottest boy in school (who also happens to be the best dancer, and is, believe-it-or-not, straight) has a thing for her, and talks her into starting her own crew when the 410 kicks her out for missing rehearsals. It turns out that there are a few outside-the-box students at their school, who readily join up and start rehearsing. The prepsters prank the 410, and the 410 retaliates, in true ghetto fashion, by busting up the dance studio at the school, and then busting up Chase's face and ribs in a little midnight 3-on-1 brawl. Andie gets expelled for her involvement in the shenanigans that led to the graffiti on the walls of the smashed-up studio. But, the night of the big competition at the club (called "The Streets"), the prepsters come together to remind the 410 and everyone else what the streets are really about: dancing. In the rain.

So let's talk about the dance sequences, since the plot is basically negligible. The movie opens with a kind of surprise performance: a bunch of random people get on the subway—an old lady, a young thug, a woman with a baby, and executive, etc. Then, one by one, they don masks and start dancing, in a potentially ominous, in-your-face kind of way. They taunt the other passengers, do flips, and basically totally fucking rock out. I wish I saw that shit on the subway. Damn. The next off the chain dance sequence (I'm skipping the less-than-awesome dance sequences, FYI) is the prank that Andie's new crew has videotaped and posted on YouTube, where the 410 watches it: to the Digital Underground's rap classic The Humpty Dance, the members of Andie's crew, wearing funny disguises, follow Tuck (Black Thomas) around and dance behind him without his noticing. Then they sneak into his house and leave a smelly fish behind. It's a pretty brilliant prank. And the dancing, while not virtuoso and gymnastic, is more subtly hilarious and interesting. At this time, a massive shout out must go to Adam Sevani, who plays the nerdy Moose, and who is hands down the best (and most liquid) dancer in the film.

The other two major dance sequences are of course at the end: the 410's show-stopping performance inside the club, which doesn't appear top-able, and the prepster's climactic performance outside of the club—in the streets!—in the rain, in the dark, with little lights, which of course tops the 410. But because these dance numbers are a bit more typical, I will at this point move my area of focus to issues of race, which had slowly been creeping up on me throughout the movie, but completely revealed themselves here: for all of its glorification of hip-hop and b-boying (that is, breakdancing, if you're so white you don't know), this is a movie for white people. Not because the protagonist is white, or because her love interest is white, or because the members of her crew are ambiguously bi-racial rather than as black and Puerto Rican as the members of the 410. Because, during the medley of songs that play during the prepsters' final number, we hear guitars. It's that post-metal pop that's so appealing to all those white people out in the middle of America, playing, interspersed with rap, while the white kids dance in the rain, showing the black kids how it's done.

That's a disappointing 180 from my favorite part of the movie, which has nothing to do with dancing at all: the fight in which the white boy gets his comeuppance. Although the same old racial stereotypes are being reinforced, I had to give a bit of a war whoop. Here's how it goes down: after a fun-filled fiesta, Chase (aka white boy) is walking home. A car pulls up, and Tuck and two of his buddies from the 410 get out. Words are exchanged (you might want to be aware of some jealousy subtext—Tuck seems to have once either dated or at least wanted to date Andie), and Chase tells his thuggish antagonists to step off. He says (can you believe it?) "I'll see you at The Streets," referring, of course, to that big dance competition. And then, the best part: "This is the streets [motherfucker!]" That's right, Tuck. No fucking kidding. Dumb-ass white folks, think they know anything about the streets.

Tuck punches Chase in the face, knocks him down on the floor, and kicks his ribs in, with the help of his accomplices, demonstrating what the streets are really about. Now, I'm not one for gratuitous violence, nor for the un-problematized enactments of racial stereotypes. Plus, I'm a white girl who listens to rap and goes to hip hop dance classes and watches movies like Step Up 2. And I'm not self-hating. And yet, it's good to see a posh white kid getting schooled for mindlessly appropriating the affects of contemporary urban black culture.

I'm not saying whites shouldn't listen to rap (they should) or dance hip hop (they should), but they really ought to have a little. . . not shame, exactly. . . not reverence, quite. . . but maybe deference. Just a little bit. Some gratitude. Some fucking respect. And the people who made this movie should have had enough respect not to include retarded post-metal pop in the climactic scene, even if the movie's target market is middle America. Because there's a bunch of black tweens in that audience, too, and how are they supposed to have any pride if they see their own culture being scooped up, hollowed out, and refilled with whipped cream?

No comments: