SAVE THE LAST DANCE (2001): a hip, hopeful MTV romance

Anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s understands the power MTV had on their lives in these formative years. Before the dawn of YouTube, hours could be spent immersed in the cable channels around MTV watching endless music videos from across the decades. This, for many of us, is where our knowledge and appreciation of the music we grew to embrace, in part, came from.

The success of MTV—which had forged the careers of numerous future cinematic auteurs including among others Michel Gondry and David Fincher—logically extended into the cinematic realm with the formation of MTV Productions in 1996 – their movie studio arm. While their reach has today declined, at the end of the ’90s, MTV Productions would develop pictures as diverse as Mike Judge’s juvenile Beavis & Butthead Do America, teen college drama Varsity Blues and Alexander Payne’s erudite, caustic Election, the latter both in the cinematic boom year of 1999. It is hard to square such a wildly different set of pictures from the same production house aside from one common denominator: they were all about, for or aimed at the teenage movie market.

Save the Last Dance is an example of how MTV Productions worked to bridge the gap between the independent movie which had emerged during the ‘90s as an antidote to the dominance of the tentpole blockbuster that came to bear from the late 1970s onwards, and the burgeoning concept of the cinematic franchise that by the end of the 2000s would bear fruit and burst into existence as the 2010s arrived.

It feels like a picture born of both worlds simultaneously.

Written by Duane Adler and Cheryl Edwards, from the former’s story, the film revolves around Sara Johnson, a middle-class, white teenage suburbanite (Julia Stiles) and skilled budding ballerina hoping to gain entrance to the prestigious Julliard School, whose mother tragically dies in a car accident on the day of a failed audition. Forced to live with her estranged father in the rougher Chicago south side, and attending a school made up primarily of young black people from that part of the city, Sara is befriended by young single mother Chenille (Kerry Washington) and forges a bond with her clever brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas), who encourages her to indulge her talent for dancing while adopting the modern hip hop sensibilities of black culture, as they both face the ever-present danger of drug-related violence.

If you’re thinking Save the Last Dance does not sound like a traditional teen movie by this rather dour description, you’d be correct. We’re a long way from the safe, middle-class nerd territory of American Pie here. Save the Last Dance has more in common with the 1995 Michelle Pfeiffer-starring Dangerous Minds in some sense, angled less on the romantic or teen sex side of the genre and as much on the cultural and class distinctions of early 21st century America. Sara, in another life, could have inhabited the world of such a group of horny teenagers in wealthy suburban neighbourhoods, but Save the Last Dance purposefully transports a character with high aspiration into a world without aspiration, whereby she both inspires and is inspired to achieve her goals.

Nevertheless, Save the Last Dance is uncharacteristic in how it presents itself. Stiles, best known at this point for her razor-tipped turn in 1998’s modern take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You, is shorn of her icy resolve for the grieving, quiet and at first mournful Sara. How many teen movies begin with the sudden, tragic death of a parent? Not only that, but Sara must go and live with a well-meaning but economically poor father figure who she barely knows, whose freezer is filled with frozen TV dinners for them to eat. The film does little with this relationship, focused as it is on Sara and Derek’s dynamic, but it underscores the ‘fish out of water’ aspect of Sara, even if she never trades on it.

One of the more endearing aspects of Save the Last Dance, a film which never aspires to be a comedy or too heavy a drama, is how Sara is largely embraced by the black community she finds herself studying with and living amongst. Chenille takes her under her wing almost from day one, bringing her into the bosom of her family, and even the stock school ‘bitch’ Nikki (Bianca Lawson)—who takes an immediate dislike to Sara on the basis of her underplayed charm and attachment to Derek—never truly builds into the primary threat or antagonist. By the end, she is dancing with Sara, Derek, Chenille and everyone else. The film’s only true threat comes in Malakai (Fredro Starr), a drug-dealer who Derek feels he owes, and who introduces drive-by shootings and genuine threat into the lives of Sara and those in her orbit. Save the Last Dance suggests the real villain of the Chicago south side are the systemic criminal forces who corrupt young black men.

The film has been accused of buying into black stereotypes, which is a fair criticism. Christine Marie Miwag-Dixon suggests Sara is complicit in this:

Sara assumes that the baby Chenille’s grandmother carries is Chenille’s. While the baby is, in fact, Chenille’s son, it kind of makes you wonder if Sara would have jumped to the same conclusion if Chenille were white. Just a few scenes later, she asks Derek if he has any kids, which seems to support the theory that Sara thinks black people are more likely to be single teen parents. Her friend from her hometown also assumes that her new neighborhood is in the “ghetto” and that there are regular shootings. When Sara says she met a cool guy, her friend asks if there are white guys at the school because it never occurs to her that Sara could date outside her race. Even Chenille says that her brother, Derek, is “one of the few decent men we have left after jail, drugs, and drive-by,” thereby dismissing the vast majority of men in the black community. All the black characters in the film are portrayed as skilled dancers who are into hip hop, another racial stereotype.

What this reading fails to acknowledge, however, is that Sara’s innate privilege is never vindicated. She never becomes the ‘white saviour’ who comes to a black community and beats black people at their own game. She arrives with her own pre-conditioned assumptions, perhaps, of how black people on the south side live their lives, but she ultimately adopts hip hop and fuses it with her traditional ballet for the final audition to Julillard where she, inevitably, succeeds – with Derek, her black boyfriend, providing the support she missed from her mother, who was killed racing to the audition.

Sara doesn’t appropriate black culture, she merely learns from it and takes those concepts—expressed through dance—into a dominantly white space. She equally supports Chenille in dealing with the unresolved issues with the father of her baby, and encourages Derek in his aspirations to become a paediatrician at Georgetown University, and thereby break free of the systematic problems of crime inherent in his neighbourhood. He helps her overcome her grief. She helps him avoid becoming Malakai.

Derek is, admittedly, in danger at points of becoming a cliche in himself – the bright black boy who risks falling into crime, only to be ‘rescued’ by a white suburbanite. He has something in common with Rob Brown’s brilliant young writer in Gus Van Sant’s 2000 film Finding Forrester, which presented his character as a Hemingway in the making who ‘defeats’ the racial and cultural prejudices of the white American literary college system thanks to the irascible guidance of Sean Connery’s reclusive, J. D. Salinger-type genius (arguably Connery’s last great screen performance).

Save the Last Dance is, therefore, not without cliche, and follows a predictable and well-worn narrative path, but the conventional if enlightened approach to portraying black culture perhaps stems from the presence of a black director in Thomas Carter. Though a prolific TV director for hire across the ’80s and ’90s, Carter cinematically was known by this point as director of the marginally successful 1997 Eddie Murphy action vehicle Metro, Carter would go on after Save the Last Dance to helm the better known Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson as the eponymous basketball coach, based on a true story, which again sees Carter tackle a high school environment and issues of race and black culture.

MTV Productions had yet to achieve their greatest hit at the box office, which would soon arrive with the first of the big screen adaptations of juvenile TV prank series Jackass, but Save the Last Dance undoubtedly struck a chord with teen audiences, making over $130 million at the box office on a $13 million budget. It never quite lodged into popular culture to the degree Beavis & Butthead or Jackass did, nor achieve the retrospective cult acclaim Election has seen (as it was not a hit at the time), but Save the Last Dance does serve as a surprisingly effective example of tackling issues of race, black culture and environment in a manner which lifts beyond mere caricature.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert summed it up at the time in a positive review:

“Save the Last Dance” begins with standard material but doesn’t settle for it. The setup promises cliches, but the development is intelligent, the characters are more complicated than we expect, and the ending doesn’t tie everything up in a predictable way. Above all, this is a movie where the characters ask the same questions we do: They’re as smart about themselves as we are.

Though Carter as a director has never emerged as a singular voice, Kerry Washington broke out after this as one of the key black female actors of her generation, while Julia Stiles transposed her cool, affable steel into The Bourne Identity and subsequent sequels which followed in the years, post-2001, where the frivolous and carefree MTV movie making would begin to transform (almost literally) into a sphere of fast and furious, CGI-based action fused with dark, anxious cinema reflecting a growing period of social and political unease. Stiles feels more at home between these worlds in Save the Last Dance as she did in 2000’s awkward, conventional romance Down to You, while Save the Last Dance itself feels like a teen film that recognises change is afoot for young people. 

The carefully crafted and protected teenage worlds of privilege, even for white kids, may no longer be sacred in a brand new century.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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