There are some movies you aren’t supposed to take seriously, and that’s why Step Up 2 the Streets will probably get away with so much. The original Step Up was a “dansical” variation on Good Will Hunting (we can’t call it a “musical” because nobody sings), with Channing Tatum playing a loutish blue-collar troublemaker assigned to the janitorial staff at the Maryland School of the Arts as “community service” after he’s caught vandalizing the school theatre. Tatum’s Tyler Gage was a “street dancer” (the Step Up movies use this term like a racial epithet, even though Tatum is white) and his hidden gift drew the attention of a beautiful female student in search of a partner for a big competition. Guess what happened next?
Though set at the same school and featuring a cameo from Tatum, Step Up 2 has only a few points of correlation with its predecessor. It’s also probably the single most racist movie that will be released by any major American studio in the first 10 years of the twenty-first century, not that anyone affiliated with the picture is aware of that fact. Step Up 2 is a perfect example of how the law of unintended consequences, when coupled with institutional racism and the longstanding practice of ripping off ethnic cultures to make white kids feel cool, can mix up a Molotov cocktail in insensitive hands.
To goose things up, this Step Up has been rethought as a coded gang-banger movie, with pert and spastic “street dancer” Andie (played by Briana Evigan, a pint-sized Jodie Foster wannabe who is both the worst dancer visible and the film’s star) trying to break free from her “crew” (the word “gang” is studiously avoided) of “street dancers” to pursue her genetic destiny as a prep-school student at good old MSA. Her “street” crew is ruled by a tyrannical black man named Tuck (Black Thomas), who’s been directed to play against Andie like a controlling and borderline abusive boyfriend, i.e., as a Bigger Thomas stereotype of ominous blackness coveting white virtue. Tuck’s crew—called “the Four-One-Oh”—expresses itself through frenetically choreographed acts of street vandalism that are like a masked variation on the South Central L.A. dance form called krumping, but without krumping’s storytelling and political subtexts.
Like Tyler Gage before her, once Andie arrives at what the press notes call “the elite Maryland School of the Arts,” she suffers prejudice at the hands of snobs—in other words, she’s that rarest of hothouse flowers, a white kid martyred by bigotry. Andie meets and spars and ultimately couples with the very tall, very blonde, very suburban Chase Collins (“dansical” veteran Robert Hoffman of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and You Got Served fame). Andie is then kicked out of the Four-One-Oh because of her divided loyalties, and, as the showbiz brats playing urban types in movies like this like to say, it’s on, with Andie and Chase creating their own crew and conspiring to take “the streets” away from Tuck and his much more aggressive following.
Tuck’s crew is dominated by virile and energized black dancers, including the vibrant Telisha Shaw; Andie and Chase’s by themselves and another white kid named Moose (Adam G. Sevani). So despite some obligatory mixed-race casting, what we basically have here is a race war played out as a dance movie, with one gang ruled by a pair of “elite”-school-attending Caucasians while the other is governed by an angry, uneducated and ultimately violent black man depicted as if he has sexual designs on the white female lead. The word “punk’d” must be trademarked by Ashton Kutcher, so Andie and Chase’s crew “prank” the Four-One-Oh by creating a good-natured viral video that humiliates Tuck. So what does Tuck do? He and another large black man plus a sidekick of indeterminate ethnicity revert to what the movie seems to see as ethnic type: They ambush and then beat down big blonde Chase in a dark alley, after which Tuck’s crew vandalizes the “elite” MSA by painting gang-style graffiti all over its walls. Chase, being a man of, oh, perhaps hereditary honor, decides to get even—not through violence but through dancing. And now it’s really, really, REALLY on.
As they blithely play to the most offensive stereotypes (white kids = “elite” private school, black kids = street violence), the fact that virtually every creative inflection in Step Up 2 is borrowed from black culture doesn’t even seem to occur to the makers of the movie. Andie and Chase krump and breakdance; when their relationship gets into trouble, a gospel song plays on the soundtrack to provide the raw human feeling the actors seem incapable of communicating. Andie and Chase are vampires of cool, and the core fantasy of the storyline seems to be that, given the chance, white kids are hipper, more diligent and more honorable at being black than black kids are. Andie even gets to end the film with an inspirational speech about tolerance that turns everyone against Tuck and the Four-One-Oh. In other words, the pot almost literally calls the kettle black.
Step Up 2 stands in an ignoble and pernicious tradition that goes back at least as far as the improbable ’50s recording career of multimillion-selling “rock ’n’ roller” Pat Boone. Boone’s entire initial appeal was that he rerecorded some of the most ferocious Fats Domino and Little Richard tracks in the style of Bing Crosby so that racist radio programmers could play the songs without exposing white teenyboppers to actual black vocalists. Step Up 2 is a similar racist shadow show, with “commercially acceptable” representatives of the majority culture used not just to rip-off minority-created art forms, but to defend the theft against members of the very community the art forms themselves sprang from.
Just to show they’re not bigots, Andie and Chase recruit a pair of neutered, geeky black dancers into their crew, both of whom wear coke-bottle glasses and appear slightly deformed, and neither of whom can dance worth a damn. This appears to be
Step Up 2
’s ideal of an ethnic identity: placid, docile, asexual and incompetent, and tolerated in an act of humanist generosity by the principled white folks who run things. If you ask me, Tuck should have kicked Chase’s ass a little harder. After all, viewed from a certain angle, Tuck’s the one who’s getting mugged in this movie, by Chase and Andie and a bunch of suits somewhere in the bowels of the Disney organization who probably think they’ve made a movie about tolerance and understanding.
Distributor: Buena Vista
Cast: Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Adam G. Sevani, Black Thomas, Telisha Shaw
Director: Jon Chu
Writers: Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna
Producers: Erik Feig, Jennifer Gibgot, Adam Shankman and Patrick Wachsberger
Genre: Dance film/drama
Rating: PG-13 for language, some suggestive material and brief violence.
Running time: 98 min.
Release date: February 14