“Save The Last Dance” Turns 20: E! News Rewind
Facts: If you ever slipped on a leotard and tights in the mid-to-late ’90s, there’s a solid chance you either wanted to be like Center Stage‘s Jody Sawyer (or Zoe Saldana‘s Eva Rodriguez, TBH, our vote for the best goddamn dancer in the American Ballet Academy) or Sara Johnson, the Chicago ballerina with big Juilliard dreams.
Made during Julia Stiles‘ successful teen movie run (which coincided with her modern-retelling-of-a-popular-William–Shakespeare-play phase), 2001’s Save the Last Dance—which dropped suburban Sara into an inner city Chicago high school, where she naturally finds love with the one(!) successful Black male student, played by Sean Patrick Thomas—spent two weeks at the top of the box office, propelling then-Columbia University freshman Stiles to the heights of ubiquity.
She collected MTV Awards for Best Kiss and Best Female Performance and a Teen Choice trophy for Best Fight Scene thanks to her face-off with her new guy’s ex (Bianca Lawson) at STEPPS, the must-attend club that ain’t no square dance but is certainly lax on regulating fake IDs. Stiles also scored a gig hosting Saturday Night Live and a Rolling Stone cover, the mag declaring her “the coolest coed.”
Though for all that success and the film’s $27.5 million opening weekend box office haul, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that it feels more than a bit problematic when viewed through a 2021 prism.
As the Black characters struggle with poverty, teenage parenthood and gang violence, privileged fish-out-of-water Sara connects with Thomas’ Derek, a senior with Georgetown ambitions who happens to be the sole Black male in the film with a promising future. And when their interracial love is challenged, Sara is painted as a victim, glossing over the other characters’ very real beef with the situation.
But the MTV Films release did gift us with plenty of dance numbers to spend hours memorizing, a solid soundtrack (Pink‘s “You Make Me Sick,” Ice Cube‘s “You Can Do It,” K-Ci and JoJo‘s “Crazy”) and the valuable lesson that we should never leave our s–t on the floor.
Plus, it introduced the world to an unknown Kerry Washington as Derek’s sister Chenille, who challenged Sara when she brushed off any mention of her inherent white privilege by boldly declaring, “There’s only one world, Chenille.” Uhhhhh… As Chenille put it, “That’s what they teach you. We know different.”
So there are parts that are still slammin’.
And with the 20th anniversary of the Jan. 12 release upon us, we’re ready to dust off our best STEPPS-worthy moves and dance in circles. Probably around you. Here’s everything you may have forgotten about the 2001 flick.