Every week for the foreseeable future, Vulture will be selecting one film to watch as part of our Friday Night Movie Club. This week’s selection comes from writer Roxana Hadadi, who will begin her screening of Save the Last Dance on January 15 at 7 p.m. ET. Head to Vulture’s Twitter to catch her live commentary, and look ahead to next week’s movie here.
When Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent said, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the onetime Gotham DA was talking about the corruptive impact of power and how individuals can indulge their worst, most destructive impulses in the name of protecting those they love. He was mostly referring to his own transformation into the villain Two-Face, and also hinting at Batman’s flirtation with fascism, but he might as well have been reflecting on the legacy of the teen romance Save the Last Dance.
The words of the last decent man in an indecent time fit the fate of the 2001 film from director Thomas Carter (who directed Batman himself, Christian Bale, in 1993’s Swing Kids) and writers Duane Adler (who later penned Step Up) and Cheryl Edwards (in her screenwriting debut). It’s a movie in which Julia Stiles wears a cardigan from the Gap as a head wrap, learns how to sit on it, and gives herself sloppy box braids — and it was beloved by millennial audiences at the time of its release. (It debuted at No. 1 at the North American box office, pulling in $27.5 million in its opening weekend.) But, oh, how fans went from sympathizing with Stiles’s Sara, grieving over her mother’s death and feeling her desire to become a professional dancer, to really seeing her body rolls, two-step, and voguing for what they are. And that is, well, this:
To refresh your memory: Save the Last Dance stars Stiles as a white former ballet dancer and Sean Patrick Thomas as Derek, a Black aspiring pediatrician who volunteers to help Sara train for a Juilliard audition. They eventually fall into a romantic relationship, one that is supported by some of their mostly Black schoolmates in South Chicago and derided by others. Upon its release on January 12, 2001, Save the Last Dance received mixed critical reviews but had some passionate defenders. Roger Ebert, who gave the film three out of four stars for the Chicago Sun-Times, said, “The movie’s awake. It surprises you.” Desson Howe wrote in his review for the Washington Post that “between the clichés — and there are so many, it would take several, extremely dull film-school papers to list them all — the movie does have a spark.”
Both Ebert and Howe were partially right: Ebert about the film’s self-awareness in approaching an interracial romance and its consideration that Sara’s “but we like each other!” blinders are a product of her privilege. And Howe about the film’s sincerity amid an otherwise fairly predictable teen-romance narrative. But as our conversations about diversity and inclusion have evolved, the film’s “I don’t see color” approach feels sanded down, and because it’s been memed enough, I feel very comfortable saying this: Sara’s final audition for Juilliard is some amateurish bullshit. (Bless the TikTok users who’ve re-created Sara’s climactic audition scene 25 years later.)
To rewatch Save the Last Dance today is to realize that the best parts of the film are neither Sara nor Derek, but Derek’s sister Chenille (played by Kerry Washington) and Derek’s ex Nikki (played by Bianca Lawson). Both actresses have enough charisma to wrench the film from Stiles and Thomas. Washington manages to seamlessly swing between warmth and frustration in her role as a teenage single mother. Lawson unduly spent the ’90s getting pushed aside to make space for white characters (Buffy! Dawson’s Creek!), but her ability to channel an authentic, complicated bitterness (while being a genuinely excellent dancer capable of pulling off a faux-leather tube top and detached sleeves combo) shines in Save the Last Dance. Both their character arcs deserve our renewed attention, which is why I’ve chosen it for Vulture’s first Friday Night Movie Club viewing of 2021.
Is Save the Last Dance really worth rewatching, you might ask? Whether you like it or not, the movie’s encasement in the aughties pop-culture canon is undeniable, and it’s worth reevaluating how, exactly, that happened. Will I be rewatching it for the cursed audition scene? No. I am in my 30s and I can no longer tolerate that much suspension of disbelief. I’ll be rewatching it for the underappreciated performances from Washington and Lawson, two stars whose careers veered in different directions in the 25 years that have passed. The party starts this Friday at 7 p.m. ET on
the STEPPS dance floor Vulture’s Twitter account. Don’t forget your rum-and-coke, no ice.
Save the Last Dance is available to rent on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play.
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