Room for Improvement:
Gender Roles – Women
Gender Roles – Men
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Language and Sexual Content
Violence Against Women
Love: 5 Stars
Sara and Derek’s love story is genuine and engaging, primarily due to Derek’s thoughtful way of recognizing Sara’s pain and encouraging her to believe in her dreams again. They have real conversations and face legitimate threats to their relationship, which they need to work through with open and honest communication. Unfortunately, Derek never shares his own pain over the mother and father that abandoned him, or any of the other hurts that he may be hiding. He does, however, share with Sara a little bit about his past mistakes, his loyalty to his friend Malakai, and his own dreams for the future. While the couple certainly has some pitfalls, as a whole, they treat each other with respect and honesty.
Gender Roles - Women: 3 Stars
Sara Johnson is a talented and dedicated performer, but loses motivation quickly when things get difficult. She not only gives up on her dream after her mother’s death, but nearly walks away from Derek when things start to get complicated. She even comes close to abandoning her audition after a making a minor mistake. Sara does put in the hard work to become the dancer that she wants to be, but it takes a lot of coaching and encouragement for her to believe in her own talent and go after what she wants.
Gender Roles - Men: 2 Stars
Derek is a bright and caring young man, but he also faces some common problems that young Black men in poverty face. He is torn between his loyalty to his thuggish friend Malakai, and protecting his chances of becoming a doctor and escaping life in his poor and violent neighborhood. He isn’t able to talk his way out of his problems and never expresses any sincere emotion over the turmoil in his life. Save the Last Dance perpetuates the cliché that masculinity is based off of aggression and violence, and that negotiation and walking away are signs of weakness.
Self-Esteem and Body Image: 3 Stars
Sara appears to have a healthy self-esteem and stands up for herself whenever she’s confronted. But she also requires a lot of encouragement and draws on others to boost her confidence. Some of this is due to her mother’s passing, but it’s clear that she struggled with self-confidence even before her mother was killed.
Save the Last Dance does, however, put more emphasis on Sara’s talent and goals than her physical appearance. If anything, the film suggests that her pretty white face is more of a liability than an asset, and that she may need to work twice as hard to be accepted in her new school.
Plot: 2.5 Stars
Save the Last Dance purports to be about Sara’s personal struggle to overcome her mother’s death and to adapt to her new reality, but the film is more about dancing and race relations than Sara’s triumph. Her excuse for giving up on her dream is a bit flimsy and predictable, but paves the way for her introduction to hip hop. She does eventually accomplish what she sets out to accomplish, but her passion for ballet is drastically overshadowed by the drama surrounding her relationship with Derek and the hard lives of the Black people around her. While the story is an engaging look at the culture clash between white privilege and Black poverty, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Sara is the film’s hero.
Character Development: 3 Stars
Sara seems lost and confused when the story begins, but slowly regains her confidence. She proves that she’s open to new experiences and that she has a lot of heart and determination buried under her attitude of surrender and reluctance. Save the Last Dance gives Sara just enough backstory to explain this sense of defeat, but the film could have done a lot more to show us just how difficult her transition has been. She seems to weave her way seamlessly into her new life and her new set of friends, without ever feeling like an outcast or crying over the injustice of everything she’s lost. We don’t know what kind of person Sara was before she moved to Chicago, so her new persona is easy to accept - but also a little empty.
Language and Sexual Content: 2 Stars
Most of the women in Save the Last Dance, including Sara, shamelessly taunt each other with the word “bitch.” In addition, Sara even refers to a nameless woman on her fake ID as fat and ugly. The film stays away from more sexually provocative words like “slut” or “ho,” but there is still enough unnecessary harsh language to discredit some of the characters. The limited suggestion of sexuality, however, is tame and respectful.
Violence Against Women: 0 Stars
Save the Last Dance includes one difficult scene in which Derek’s friend Malakai is abusive towards a female in the women’s restroom. Sara is brave enough to confront Malakai in the heat of the moment, but immediately backs off when he threatens her. She never reports what she saw, never checks up on the woman Malakai assaulted, and worst of all, never even speaks to Derek about the incident. While it’s easy to assume that she’s too frightened of Malakai to say anything, even to Derek, this only makes her acceptance of Derek's friendship with Malakai that much more troubling. Sara isn’t shy about letting Derek know that she’s angry when he dances with another woman, but she remains silent about the his best friend's violence.
Family: 1 Star
Save the Last Dance doesn’t include many family scenes, but it’s still easy to notice a common theme of lackluster fathers. Sara’s father has been absent enough from her life that she refers to him as Roy, and Sara’s friend Chenille is fighting a losing battle with her ex-boyfriend over his involvement in their son’s life. Save the Last Dance does end with the suggestion that both Roy and Kenny are starting to come around, but still feeds the stereotype that men need to be coaxed and forced into fatherhood.
Friendship: 2.5 Stars
Sara and Chenille have an intriguing friendship, but unfortunately, it isn’t given much screen time. They have a few genuine moments when they talk about Chenille’s dreams of becoming a fashion designer, about the way her mother abandoned her and Derek, and even about some deeper problems associated with interracial relationships - but their conversations are typically sidelined before they get too in depth. Even so, there is enough substance in these brief exchanges to create a heartfelt and meaningful relationship.
Derek and Malakai’s friendship on the other hand, is rooted in little more than loyalty and testosterone. They have little in common, but rely on each other for a sense of strength and reassurance. Malakai isn’t concerned with the fact that he could destroy Derek’s only chance at a better life. And Derek is strangely oblivious to how hardened and cruel Malakai has become. Derek does eventually plead with Malakai to change his ways and attempt to build a better life for himself, but in the end, their relationship is too much of a cliché to be taken very seriously