ATLANTA — The dance comedy “Step Sisters” won’t hit theaters until next year, but the film is already drawing backlash from the African-American community due to topics some consider racist.
The plot centers on a black sorority sister named Jamilah, who, in order to get into law school, must teach the black Greek step to a group of white sisters from a sorority whose charter is about to be chartered. ‘be revoked.
On the surface, the story suggests a dubious effort to make fun of racial stereotypes and cultural appropriation. But the participants in the film believe that the public has the wrong impression.
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised that the take-home message is actually the opposite of white cultural appropriation of black culture,” said Megalyn Echikunwoke, who plays Jamilah. “The messages are very different and much deeper.”
However, a description of the film circulating on the Internet has disturbed many black people.
“The way it was presented to me just threw me off,” said Candice Frederick, a film blogger. “A lot of my readers and followers felt the same way, and a lot less diplomatic. … There are a lot of (black) people who are not excited about this movie.”
Frederick and others sent messages to Echikunwoke and one of the film’s producers, Lena Waithe, through blogs and social media. Waithe, who is black, responded that the film was not an attempt to portray black fraternities or sororities in a negative light. She told one person that the film was in good hands with fellow producer Benjamin Jones and writer Chuck Hayward, both of whom had black fraternity backgrounds.
Frederick said Waithe contacted her directly and told her she would never work on a project that involved cultural appropriation and that “Step Sisters” was “really smart and funny.”
Frederick said she was open to the film Waithe described, “but it’s really about how this film is presented.”
Echikunwoke said that “Step Sisters,” in a comedic way, actually challenges stereotypes of blacks and whites, as well as the lack of racial progress in society. She compares the film’s context to the 2014 film “Dear White People,” a satire on race relations.
“The comedy, stereotypes and social references are meant to be thought-provoking,” Echikunwoke said. “It’s definitely intended to be provocative. It might be offensive to some people. It’s not like we’re trying to be offensive, but I think we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
When director Charles Stone, who is black, first pitched the film, he was opposed to making it. But after reading Hayward’s script, he liked how the story explored the gray areas of crossing cultures, the fear of cultural appropriation, and the humor of racial stereotypes.
Stone expects initial backlash, saying the hook line “will immediately make people take up arms.” But he said the Black Greeks’ march was the “perfect” step to fight racism and discrimination.
Stepping is a popular dance routine used primarily by African-American fraternities and sororities during competitions on college campuses. Routines usually involve a rhythmic, rhythmic mix of foot movements and hand claps.
“The white and black Greek systems are distinct,” said Stone, who directed the film “Drumline” in 2002. “They really don’t mix. In the African American Greek world, he accepts being separate because he protects his rituals for fear of appropriation and another culture taking advantage of them. It’s a very real fear and worry.”
But Stone also pointed out that crossing cultures isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He said the film references the breakthrough of black sisters Serena and Venus Williams in the predominantly white sport of tennis, and the rise of white rapper Eminem in hip-hop music, which was ignited in the community black.
“We are all human beings, even if we live in a world where gender bias and inequality exist,” he said. “Here is an opportunity where we can all embrace a common goal by working together, regardless of cultural and societal differences.”
Eden Sher, who plays white dancer Beth in the film, said she never tried dancing before her role in “Step Sisters.” The actress said she has no problem with the two cultures learning from each other.
“It would be great if we could intervene without taking anything away or appropriating it,” she said. “We can honor someone’s roots… but let’s share. By keeping it totally separate, it just perpetuates this strange modern segregation.”