If film direction is a dance, then Sylvain White, director of the new stepping movie “Stomp the Yard,” has two left feet.
White, a veteran music video director, could have succeeded if he had stuck to what he knows best — music and shooting complicated dance choreography. And to be fair, the movie’s soundtrack is shamelessly fun and White’s pulsating camera work during the dance scenes (almost reminiscent of stop-motion animation) is compelling. But what could have (and probably should have) been a mindlessly enjoyable two-hour dance-off too frequently devolves into unnecessary and distracting drama.
The movie’s main character, DJ (choreographer Columbus Short), is a young man fresh out of jail (wrongfully imprisoned, I might add) who moves from his native Los Angeles to Atlanta, Georgia, to attend Truth University. Although at first reluctant to swap his doo-rag for a graduation cap, DJ soon begins earnestly working to start anew and make amends for his past mistakes. But his efforts to succeed in the classroom and to woo the beautiful April (Meagan Good) are both sidelined when the two top fraternities begin vying for his attention. Both fraternities have nationally recognized stepping teams, and it just so happens that DJ has the talent and fresh style they need to bring home the gold.
The trajectory of the movie’s plot is predictable enough, complete with a requisite love story and moralizing tale of a loner who learns to love the team. “Stomp the Yard” is filled with equally formulaic characters — from the quirky roommate to the demanding team leader who comes around in the end — and there are also poorly veiled similarities to other movies of its genre, perhaps most notably the iconic “Bring It On.”
The world of Southern stepping fraternities is apparently one of fierce rivalry, undying brotherhood and ludicrous self-importance — and one in which the only white people (or really, the only non-black people) are stuffy restaurant patrons. More troublesome than the film’s racial homogeneity, though, is its kitschy representation of African-American culture. Although the characters in “Stomp the Yard” seem to represent the entire socio-economic spectrum, they are all cast from the same mold. The stereotype of the athletic, exceptionally virile young black man comes out of the same tradition that gave us the Uncle Tom and Mammy figures — all white constructions of blackness.
Additionally, the film draws problematic and inappropriate comparisons between the step team and some of the most influential African-American figures of the twentieth century, among them Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. These juxtapositions are — aside from the irreverence of equating the struggle to win a step competition with the Civil Rights Movement — misguided attempts to imbue “Stomp the Yard” with unwarranted seriousness. The beauty of a movie like “Stomp the Yard” (or rather what it should have been) is that it has no underlying meaning and ought only to be taken at face value.
The endless barrage of stereotypes just gets boring after a while — and “Stomp the Yard” would, too, if it weren’t for the energetic bursts of step competition sprinkled throughout the film. White’s inappropriate pretensions aside, there is something to be said for watching hordes of young, muscular men stepping their way up the ladder of life. Pun intended.