Despite controversy, Netflix comedy ‘Step Sisters’ is more than it appears
Two weeks ago, when the trailer for Netflix’s “Step Sisters” debuted, the minute-long trailer set (Black) Twitter ablaze. The film, which premieres on the streaming platform Friday, follows the president of a black sorority (Megalyn Echikunwoke) who is tasked with teaching one of the campus’ white sororities how to step dance for a charity competition.
Reaction to that premise was…not good.
“We can’t have anything at all,” said one user. “None of us black sororities and fraternities are going to watch this foolishness. It’s African… Can we just have it please? Good Lord!! #sofrustrating.”
“The black girls better win cause y’all ain’t about to appropriate rhythm too…,” said another user.
“Ummm no thank you,” said a third. “This is not what the culture needs and this is not based in reality. Stop appropriating African American culture to make a buck!”
In the age of social media, cultural appropriation and allegations of such are as common as the day is long. Remember when Miley Cyrus “invented” twerking? Or when Kim Kardashian made “boxer braids” a thing?
But Echikunwoke and Nia Jervier, who also stars in the film, assure audiences that “Step Sisters” isn’t quite what they think it is.
“I understand why some people are put off by the log line,” Echikunwoke said. “But it’s one of those movies where you have to watch it.”
Jervier added: “The stepping and humor put honey on what might be a tough pill for people to swallow. You receive a message without you knowing you’re there to get one.”
If your cornrows and your booty are the one thing that you have, people need to say they got it from you.
Nia Jervier, “Step Sisters”
For the uninitiated, step is a percussive art form in which the body is used as an instrument to create complex rhythms and sounds using stomps, claps and spoken word. Deeply rooted in rich African tradition, stepping is most often employed by historically black fraternities and sororities worldwide. It’s seen bouts of mainstream attention with films like Spike Lee’s “School Daze” and 2007’s “Stomp the Yard” as well as the recent “Step,” which won an NAACP Image Award for best documentary Monday.
“Step Sisters,” which also stars Naturi Naughton, Matt McGorry, Eden Sher, Alessandra Torresani and Sheryl Lee Ralph, among others, combines elements from genre touchstones such as “Bring It On,” “Sister Act” and “Save the Last Dance” with the social commentary of “Dear White People.” The introduction of step, however, which is undoubtedly a black American cultural phenomenon derived from various African foot dances including the “gumboot” dance, is causing concern.
But to Ben Cory Jones, a writer on HBO’s “Insecure” and producer of “Step Sisters,” black people, and particularly members of black greek-letter organizations, have nothing to worry about.
“The people who made this film are in the culture depicted,” he said, noting that writer Chuck Hayward (“Fat Camp,” “Dear White People”) and Jones himself are both members of black greek-letter organizations. “We understand the special nature of black greek organizations and we’re paying homage to that and creating some space where we can have some dialogue about it.”
Hayward was first inspired to pen the script after watching a YouTube video of a white sorority on a predominantly white college campus — as opposed to at a historically black college or university — stepping. Through a table read series Lena Waithe (“Master of None,” “The Chi”) put together, he spent nearly two years workshopping the script before “Drumline” director Charles Stone III came on board. The result, Jones said, is a “a broad comedy, high-octane type of script [that aims] not to just have entertainment for entertainment’s sake.”
“This film is very aware of itself,” he said.
Waithe, who is also a producer on the film, added: “No one is trying to be offensive. At the end of the day, the film is about sharing culture. Culture is meant to be appreciated and explored by everyone.”
Echikunwoke agreed, saying she “understand[s] and empathize[s] when people feel like someone is taking ownership” of their culture.
“As long as you are honest about where it comes from and make it more of a celebration of someone’s heritage, I think that’s a great thing, to celebrate people and other art forms,” she said. “The problem comes when you try to say ‘this is mine.’”
And while claiming ownership over another’s culture is not new, its impact is still important.
“There are so many things that we create as women and people of color that are taken and called something else,” Jervier said. “When I have cornrows in my hair, they are not ‘boxer braids.’ If you go to a plastic surgeon and you want to get your booty done, don’t say you want it to look like Kim Kardashian’s when J. Lo or Naomi Campbell had it first.”
“It’s different when [the piece of culture] is something that is Asian or Hispanic or Black because whatever is Caucasian is [seen as] the neutral and is shared by everyone worldwide. It’s part of culture as humanity,” she continued. “Because when we don’t have as much, it’s important for us to own what we do have.
“If your cornrows and your booty are the one thing that you have, people need to say they got it from you.”
But again, that’s not what’s happening in “Step Sisters” and, perhaps, the trailer does not fully capture some of the major conflict that might ease audience concerns.
“The stepping and dance is just a vehicle to explore race and sisterhood and people exploring their own identities and prejudices,” Echikunwoke said. “It’s not about the stepping.”
To those who still might rebuff the idea of adding the film to their Netflix queue:
“I’m a believer in not judging something until you’ve seen it,” Waithe said. “I implore all of them to check out the movie. You can’t talk to us about it until you see it. And I respect those who are like, ‘That’s just not my cup of tea. I don’t want to go there.’ That’s their choice, but then you can’t bash it.
“If you see it and then you still [don’t like it], that’s fair game.”
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