Forget Scandal, Save The Last Dance Is Kerry Washington's Best Work

Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
If someone were to ask you to name your favorite Kerry Washington performance, what would you say? Olivia Pope on Scandal? I mean, sure, Washington manages to strike a formidable mix of fierceness and vulnerability as D.C.’s best fixer on Shonda Rhimes’ must-watch soap. Still, the correct answer is obviously Chenille in Save the Last Dance.

As Chenille, Washington gets to be a one-liner spouting, all-knowing, jargon-coining teen mom who, upon a recent rewatch in honor of the film’s 15th (yes, FIFTEENTH) anniversary, is the best character in the movie. For example, here’s what she tells Sara (Julia Stiles), when she hears that Sara was accepted into Juilliard to study ballet: “I heard you got into Juilliard. That’s, like, the hottest school on the planet, right? Well, I know they got all these famous dance teachers and shit, but if you need some moves — some real flavor — you know who to call, aight?”

When Sara asks if her outfit looks okay before going into a club, saying that, “It’s from The Gap,” Chenille tells her, “It’s country, and you look country in it.” Chenille also advises Sara that when something looks good, it’s “slamming,” not “cool.”

The unfortunate part of Save the Last Dance is that Chenille makes her glorious appearance roughly 10 minutes into the movie, stays for about 25 minutes, and then vanishes for the next 40. It’s unclear where she goes, but I missed her the entire time. I mean, other things are happening. This is, after all, not a movie about Chenille. My point is that I wish it were. She does come back eventually, but her absence is strongly felt.

Anyway, I guess it’s time to talk about the person who Save the Last Dance *is* about: Sara. This movie should really be called “Julia Stiles Sports a Variety of Weird, Chunky Braids,” because that’s her character’s chosen aesthetic. I’m not sure why. It’s not like we were all wearing chunky braids in 2001. Seriously, French braids, pigtail braids, a half-up, half-down hairstyle with the half-up part in a braid...Sara wears them all. I’ve never seen so many different, unflattering ways to braid one’s hair. I like braids a lot, but these would test anyone’s loyalty to plaits. Her clothes fit in with the time period — puffy coats, cargo pants, fitted 3/4-sleeve tees — but her hairstyles continue to baffle me to this day.

I should stop being so hard on Sara’s hairstyle choices, though, because she’s going through a tough time. At the beginning of the movie, she’s on a train to Chicago. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that she used to live with her single mother, who was more like her best friend. Sara was a serious ballerina who wanted to go to Juilliard. She demanded that her mother be at her audition, even though her mom was extremely busy at work. Her mother was speeding to the auditorium to watch Sara’s audition when a truck cut her off and she died.

Now Sara is going to live with her estranged father in Chicago. She’s forsaken ballet because she believes that her dancing — and her selfishness about her audition — is responsible for her mother’s death. It’s heady, traumatic stuff for what’s ostensibly a teen movie, and extreme grief/assumed responsibility for a parent’s death isn’t even the heaviest issue that’s going to be tackled.
Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX Shutterstock.
Sara’s new high school is in Chicago’s South Side, and she’s one of the few white students there. She quickly befriends Chenille, but gets off to a rough start with her extremely smart and driven brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). Obviously, this means Sara and Derek are going to date. The “my only love sprung from my only hate” sexual chemistry is real from their initial sparring over Truman Capote in English class.

They give in to their attraction at a club called Stepps. Actually, it’s all very Maria and Tony at the dance in West Side Story — just, instead of “Mambo” playing in the background, it’s Method Man & Redman’s “Da Rockwilder.” Sara and Derek are in their own little world dancing together when a fight breaks out in the crowd. Derek’s friends are involved, so he has to go defend them.

That’s basically foreshadowing for how the rest of the movie goes. It alternates between stolen happy moments when Derek teaches Sara some hip hop moves (but really reawakens her love of dance), and ones when they have to deal with the outside world judging or coming between their relationship. While they’re in their happy bubble, they banter about Derek’s dream of going to Georgetown to become a doctor. Sara pirouettes around him. He dances circles around her. They wear matching Timberlands. He opens up about his criminal past. She opens up about her mom’s death.

Eventually, Derek takes Sara to see the Joffrey Ballet perform. She doesn’t even want to go inside the theater, but having Derek there proves to be cathartic. He helps Sara realize that her mother’s death was an accident, and that she wouldn’t have wanted Sara to give up ballet in her absence. She decides to try out for Juilliard again. They debut their awesome-couple hip hop moves at Stepps. Oh, and when they have sex for the first time, “Shining Through” — a remix of “True Colors” by Fredro Starr and Jill Scott made specifically for this movie — plays in the background. It’s so on the nose for a sex scene featuring an interracial romance between a ballerina and a hip hop dancer that I actually guffawed. Subtle, Save the Last Dance is not.

This is especially true when it comes to race relations, a.k.a. what happens outside of Derek and Sara’s happy relationship bubble. A woman shoots them nasty looks on the train simply for being out in public together. Derek’s ex-girlfriend Nikki (Bianca Lawson) beats up Sara in gym class. Even after the fight is broken up, Nikki tells Sara, “It ain’t over, bitch...You always in my way.”
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Image: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Sara brushes off Nikki’s threats, but feels different when they’re reinforced by Chenille. “Maybe she had no business getting up in your face, but she had reason to say what she said...You and Derek act like it don’t bother people to see you two together, like it don’t hurt people to see,” she tells Sara. “Derek’s about something. He’s smart. He’s motivated. He’s for real. He’s not just gonna make some babies and not take care of them, or run the streets messing up his life. He’s gonna make something of himself. And here you come, white, so you gotta be right, and you take one of the few decent men we have left after jail, drugs, and drive-bys...Open up your pretty brown eyes and look around.”

It’s a big speech for what’s ostensibly a high-school romance slash dance movie. Chenille successfully scares Sara off. She tells Derek she doesn’t want to be his date for Stepps’ “Main Squeeze” night, and that they should cool off for a while. “Nobody wants to see us together. We spend more time defending our relationship than actually having one. It’s just so hard,” is Sara’s rationale.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that everything works out in the end, because this is, after all, a happy dance movie aimed at teenagers. Chenille tells Derek that she spooked Sara, and that he should go after her because “at least you found someone you love who loves you back.” Aww, you’ll find love one day, Chenille! If not, I’ll write a movie in which you do — as long as Kerry Washington agrees to reprise her role.

Derek chooses to go to Sara’s Juilliard audition instead of participating in a drive-by shooting with his friends — the balance in this movie is very skewed — and of course she gets in. Derek’s friends get arrested. The credits roll as everyone dances to Montell Jordan’s “Get It On Tonite” at Stepps.

Again, it’s an uneven movie, but it holds up fairly well. What I remembered most about it before I rewatched was the soundtrack. Ice Cube’s “You Can Do It,” “Only You” by 112 (featuring Biggie Smalls), and Pink’s “You Make Me Sick” brought me back to that very specific time capsule of 2001 when STLD came out. What I remember most after this 15th anniversary re-viewing is that Kerry Washington walked away with the whole damn thing. Oh, and I should definitely add more Notorious B.I.G. into my life.
Image: Courtesy of Paramount.
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