I can give Save the Last Dance an impartial analysis about as much as I could impartially analyze one of my siblings. I was thirteen when this movie landed in my life; at exactly the right age, and the exact pallor, to love the many virtues this movie holds for its target audience.
There’s no doubt *plenty* to be said about the flaws in its approach to race. None of that could possibly come from me, on so many levels.
Here we have an adorable Julia Stiles (who looks nothing like a professional ballet dancer) doing dreadful, awkward choreography, and I love every moment of it. Who choreographed this movie? I think this might be the dance-oriented movie with the worst dancing in it. Let me know if there’s a worse one because I want to watch it.
Stiles lost her mother in a car accident. Because her mother was driving to reach Stiles’s dance audition, Stiles blames her love of dance for the death. It’s natural for young people to blame themselves for the foibles of adults. Learning that the whole world isn’t about “you” is an important part of coming of age. Stiles is taken out of her known world to live with a dad she barely knows somewhere new.
This is a classic 90s YA novel setup that immediately puts me into the most comfortable territory imaginable as a kid.
Throw in a romance that involves “sexy” dancing with Sean Patrick Thomas, and basically I was rabid about it. Frothing at the mouth. White-girl dancing in my living room to “Put Your Back Into It.”
Rewatching this immediately put me back into the body of a thirteen year old at the most awkward age of her life who thought that this movie could possibly have any relationship with reality. As a smallish-town kid who hadn’t been anywhere, all the shots of the Chicago inner city with a blue filter truly looked Stiles had gone through the looking glass into an MTV video.
This was some other world, an elevated Romeo and Juliet between a character who could easily be dropkicked out of the screen so that I could replace her and have my butt touched by Sean Patrick Thomas. Everyone at the club would be like, “Wow, that awkward white girl with braids really has a sense of rhythm.” And I would have a sense of rhythm. I really, truly would.
I gotta say, rewatching it as adult, even with the nostalgia, I could notice that the white lens of the movie is painfully strong. Parts of it don’t make sense without racist assumptions pre-installed. You need context on what white people thought about race in the year 2001 to get meaning out of some parts, like Julia Stiles sitting in a completely normal waiting room, as if it’s some high drama for a white ballerina to be in a public health clinic. It’s gotta be pretty bad if I noticed that while seeing how much bad choreography I remembered, awkwardly, swinging my middle aged butt and bouncing in place until Juilliard embraces me.
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)