A film about black youth that doesn’t focus on violence, gangs and life in the ’hood? Hard to believe these days, but it’s possible.
“Stomp the Yard,” which opens nationwide Friday, is no cinematic epic. It’s a lighthearted dance film — and there’s a LOT of impressive dancing.
But it’s set on a the campus of a historically black university where students actually study and have lofty professional goals — and where black Greek organizations and their “stepping” competitions form the center of students’ social life.
Amid debate these days about whether black youth should use the n-word as many casually do, “Stomp the Yard” includes minimal profanity. At a time when images of barely dressed women dominate hip-hop videos and its surrounding culture, the most salacious thing in this film is passionate kissing and an actress wearing very short shorts.
Even though one theater in Springfield, Ill., decided this week not to immediately show the film for fear that attracting young black theatergoers would lead to violence — the city’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has condemned the decision — there’s just one scene of real violence in “Stomp the Yard.”
Mostly, it’s an all-American coming-of-age story of a teenager from a rough background who earns tuition money by working as a campus gardener. His life is transformed when he joins a fraternity.
In a pivotal scene, the lead character, DJ Williams, who is struggling to find his place on campus, is shown learning about how black Greek organizations helped educate and nurture some of the nation’s heroes, such as civil rights leaders Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“That’s probably my favorite scene in the movie,” said Will Packer, the producer, who filmed “Stomp the Yard” mostly at Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, founded in 1885 by freed slaves. “I want people who see this film to know the incredible scope and impact that these organizations have had.”
He added that the elaborate stomping and clapping of stepping — or step dancing — must be performed in unison, which builds bonds between fraternity brothers.
In 1988, Spike Lee delved into tensions surrounding economic class and skin color on historically black campuses in “School Daze,” which included stepping. And in 2002 “Drumline” focused on black college marching band competitions.
But “Stomp the Yard” touches more on black heritage than either film, which appealed to the lead actor, Columbus Short.
Short has a theater background and spent years on Broadway — he toured with “Stomp,” the tap dancing smash hit — and was a choreographer for Britney Spears among other pop stars.
He talked with the Associated Press about what he learned filming “Stomp the Yard.”
AP: This is a dance film first and foremost. Lots of music and inspiring moves on-screen. Was that what made you want to play DJ Williams?
Short: Actually, no. At this point in Hollywood, there are about two dance films a year. People are used to seeing them. What set this apart was that there’s a bigger message here.
AP: Which was?
Short: There’s one hundred years behind the organization, the black fraternity, in the film. And it’s taken that long to get people talking about it. It’s bringing something that’s been going on for so long to the light. I was more excited about doing that aspect of the project than doing the dance in it.
AP: In the beginning of the film, DJ didn’t have plans to go to college. He was a competitive dancer in L.A. but he gets into trouble and ends up enrolling in classes in Atlanta. He’s out of place on campus.
Short: DJ sets out to fulfill his promise to his mother to go to college. It’s not easy for him. He’s the kid who’s not supposed to make it. We see the character go from tragedy to triumph.
AP: There’s more going on besides music and dancing.
Short: I hope that some kids will see this and — you know, we’re in an MTV generation. Everything is about what’s now and here, in the moment. No one wants to work for anything anymore. It’s cool to dumb yourself down, to fit in by being ignorant and not be well-spoken. But this shows that you can get an education and still be part of a brotherhood or sisterhood that will be there long after your college years are over.
AP: The fraternity, the bond with his frat brothers, really seems to change DJ.
Short: Yes, at one point, DJ gets in trouble at college. He doesn’t try to excuse his actions. He says, “I can’t say much, but I can say that I’m different now.”
AP: Did you know anything about black fraternities before you started the film?
Short: No, I was ignorant myself. But going to Atlanta and being on the campus really shed some light on things for me. I didn’t even go to college, and doing this film I regretted that.
AP: At that time in your life, you were learning how to dance, right? The dancing you do in the film— honestly, when I saw some of it I assumed it was somehow faked. It seems physically impossible to do some of the things you did.
Short: We used no strings, no wires. Everyone did their own dancing. There were injuries, but we put our all into it.
AP: And how many of your own dance moves are in the film?
Short: Dave Scott, the choreographer, wanted me to bring what I could do the table, so a lot of the sequences that you saw were improvised, especially the dancing I did by myself. I hope people enjoy the dancing and get into the story — but I also hope they remember the character DJ. Mainly, I hope they hear the message. There’s a genuine message in the film, which is not something that dance films are known for.