The following is a review of Step Sisters — Directed by Charles Stone III.
Step Sisters is a dance comedy film about an African-American college student, Jamilah (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who wants so desperately to go to Harvard. So, when a damaging video of white sorority girls goes viral, Jamilah tries to secure a letter of recommendation from the Dean by teaching a mostly white sorority how to step dance.
The people behind the film include director Charles Stone III, who also made Drumline; writer Chuck Hayward, who served as an episode writer and story editor on the series version of Dear White People; and producer Lena Waithe, an Emmy award winner who you may know as Denise from Masters of None.
Based on those filmmakers, Step Sisters really should work. But it truly does not. Already after the first ten minutes of the film, I felt like turning it off. You see, one of the first things you realize about this film is that its combination of dialogue and offensive gender and racial stereotypes is obnoxious and jarring.
It definitely felt like the screenplay was riddled with dialogue that seemed to ask: “Do the kids still say that? Is ‘On Fleek’ still a thing?” To me, the film’s attempts at being hip, fresh, and relevant felt put-on and unnecessary. At one point, someone even refers to a character as ‘Becky with the good hair.’
The film also has this way of introducing new characters that I thought was really irritating — grating, really. You see, they introduce some characters by putting up that character’s Twitter-handle and trending hashtags that described them. That just didn’t work for me, personally.
As previously mentioned, a lot of the characters are gender or racial stereotypes, but perhaps the most intentionally obnoxious and condescending character is Jamilah’s boyfriend Dane played by Matt McGorry, who is, at one point, referred to as ‘white Malcolm X’ — an African-American studies student who seems hellbent on lecturing Jamilah on her cultural heritage.
This is a well-made point about well-meaning white liberals being insulting. It is perhaps the most successful point made in the film, and it reminded me of some of the white characters in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. But there are also poorly made characters that are unintentionally unlikable. Including one male character, who was overly flirty towards a woman who he knew was in a relationship.
Ultimately, it seems like this film is trying to get a positive message across — a positive message of cultural inclusion. But this message is delivered inelegantly. The film wants to inspire cultural inclusion, but it does so in a film that likens complains about cultural appropriation to gatekeeping.
There are some fascinating scenes in here with interesting points that, unfortunately, are not emphasized strongly enough. There is a scene where the main character tries to explain that the struggle of the white characters is unequal to the daily struggle of the black community that is so invested in the culture-specific step dancing style.
In another scene towards the end of the film, an African-American step dancing group dressed in asian-style clothing refuses to acknowledge the progress made by the white sorority girls as step dancers by blocking them with the asian handheld fans that they have with them on stage. It might’ve been interesting to use this example as more than just a throwaway shot in a film that is desperate to say something about cultural appropriation.
Some of the comments about cultural appropriation in Step Sisters are mishandled in a way that makes it all feel like a waste. Perhaps it was not the best idea to try to discuss these issues in what ultimately feels like a disposable knock-off of Bring It On, Pitch Perfect, and popular dance films from the late 00s.
4 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen