“Every time we get some, y’all come trying to steal it, putting some blonde hair on it, and calling it something different,” Isis (Gabrielle Union), captain of the fictional East Compton Clovers cheer squad, tells Rancho Carne Toros leader Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) in a confrontational scene during the cult classic film Bring It On.
The movie, which turns 20 years old on August 22, centers a white cheerleading squad working to come up with an original routine for the upcoming national championship competition after discovering that for years, their former captain stole routines from a largely-Black squad across town. If the film’s premise sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is; Bring It On’s deeper meaning pertains to the issue of cultural appropriation under the unassuming guise of sass-filled one-liners, teenybopper tropes, and iconic cheer chants set to DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.”
Not only did the film help ring in the 2000s era of teen comedy films like Not Another Teen Movie and Wet Hot American Summer, but it contributed to the introduction of openly addressing wrongdoing through call-out culture, and highlighted the importance of Black cheerleaders to the community. Now, this isn’t to say that Bring It On is the first instance on the big screen where cultural appropriation is addressed; The Five Heartbeats, Dreamgirls and Hairspray all feature scenes and themes surrounding the topic. However, as a seven-year-old when Bring It On was released, this was the first instance in my burgeoning culture-obsessed lifetime where I recognized cultural theft as a film’s central, underlying theme. Plus, as a former cheerleader-turned-competitive gymnast, any high-profile look into the world of extreme stunting and tumbling makes me feel seen.
In the 20 years that have passed since Bring It On’s release, we’ve seen so many changes in the content we consume and in the people who are developing it. Jordan Peele, Issa Rae and Lena Waithe continue to dazzle audiences far and wide with their original projects, and previously unknown Black talents continue to have their work amplified and pushed out to the masses. However, as we know and regularly see—especially in media, fashion and entertainment—ideas, trends and customs inaugurated in Black spaces are often hijacked and tinkered with by white people for mainstream consumption. Yet, thanks to the internet’s lightning-fast methods of identifying and proving wrongdoing, cultural appropriation and theft have been called out more frequently in the 21st century.
In 2017, Miley Cyrus was called out for abandoning her years-long diet of twerking and Mike WiLL Made-It hip-hop beats for a down-home, country-fried image and sound—and for many years, the Kardashian and Jenner sisters have been reprimanded for snatching and rebranding historically-Black aesthetics. And a real-life Bring It On moment occurred late last year, after viral video footage of a predominantly-white squad attempting to do the same “stomp and shake” routine as a largely-Black squad made the rounds.
Per Red Line Elite, “stomp and shake” has early-20th century Southern origins, and HBCUs such as Baton Rouge’s Southern University and A&M College have “stomp and shake” teams on campus. However, the style has been criticized by cheer purists for not utilizing enough traditional (read: non-Black traditional) technique. It is disheartening to see that this style—something so integral to Black culture—can be twisted and politicized by those who aren’t a part of that world and would never understand its significance.
This is not just a Black and white issue; there have been numerous examples of cultural appropriation and whitewashing in media, television and film for decades. Yet, most of the examples are not found within the plot, but through casting decisions. In the 1970s, Bruce Lee lost out on a role to play a Shaolin monk in the television series Kung Fu because producers felt white actor David Carradine would be better understood by American viewers. Johnny Depp, who believes he has Native American ancestry, played the role of “Tonto” in the 2013 adaptation of The Lone Ranger. In 2019, Scarlett Johansson infamously stated that she “should be allowed to play any person” as an actress, after becoming the center of controversial, whitewashed casting decisions in both 2016 and 2018.
Despite numerous examples of cultural theft throughout history, it appears that those who are guilty of appropriation are often equally in denial that it’s occurring—or are they? White people are given the power to do and take as they please; more often than not, without backlash. For instance, Bring It On’s Toros are initially dismissive upon learning that “Big Red” lifted routines from the Clovers, and opt to keep their nationals routine as is. Their basis? Ignorance about their former captain’s years-long wrongdoing and the Clovers’ supposed lack of proof. As one cheerleader puts it, “this is not about cheating—this is about winning,” and the squad shouldn’t be punished for the “mistake” that “Big Red” made.
Despite the fictional team’s belief, cultural appropriation is most often not a “whoopsie-daisy” moment, and this “winning” mindset is exactly how white people benefit from
stealing “borrowing” cultures and customs. It‘s likely the mindset Elvis Presley and his team owned while notoriously biting off Chuck Berry and Big Mama Thorton. Perhaps Madonna adopted that “winner’s” mentality when she plucked “Vogue” out of the Black and Latinx ballroom scene of New York City to receive “10s, 10s, 10s” across the charts in the early-1990s.
Luckily, people are starting to recognize that Blackness looks the best on and coming from Black people, which has resulted in an uptick in For-Us-by-Us content via television, film, music, and social media that highlights Black experiences. While everyone can consume Black-ish, Insecure and Solange’s A Seat at the Table album—or big sister Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Homecoming and Black Is King—it’s exceedingly clear that certain projects are exclusively crafted for our community, so that we can sit back and enjoy what’s ours.
But back in 2000, those waters only got deeper in the cheerleading film, as Bring It On also touched upon white guilt and the white savior complex. For instance, when the well-meaning but naive Torrance believes having her daddy cut a check to help the Clovers get to nationals is the be-all and end-all of the problem, Isis bluntly assures her that handouts aren’t going to fix the issue at hand. Instead of accepting the so-called sponsorship, she rips the check and tells the captain of the white squad to “bring it.”
As Isis recognized and many unfortunately still need to learn, the issue of white guilt doesn’t start and end with recognizing the presence of white privilege. Rectifying centuries of racial and cultural misconduct is a lot more time-consuming than whipping out a checkbook, apologizing to Black friends, or posting a black square on Instagram. It requires education, it requires listening, and above all, it requires accountability of the self and of one’s peers.
Those who are like me and were still children when Bring It On was released saw an example of what happens when Black talent isn’t treated properly, and what happens when we call a thing a thing. While there are still too many instances in media where we see cultural appropriation and theft, a reckoning is afoot in Hollywood and other media spaces regarding the treatment of Black people (especially women), both creatively and professionally. We’re in the midst of a major tipping point in history, and we’ve only just begun to see what will hopefully be long-lasting effects of call-out culture at work.
20 years after Bring It On, its co-star Gabrielle Union is using her platform to discuss the disturbing treatment of Black women in the media. When she was unceremoniously removed from her judging duties on America’s Got Talent in late 2019, she bravely detailed that the reason she was let go was due to confronting the alleged behind-the-scenes treatment of herself and other members of the cast and crew, which included racially-biased comments and incidents.
“If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband and I have, what is the point of making it?” she told Variety in their May 2020 cover story. “What is the point of having a seat at the table and protecting your privilege when you’re not doing shit to help other people?”
Reflecting on the film, which many consider Union’s breakthrough role, there is one nagging issue: while the squads are rivals, the spunky, trying-their-best Toros are still positioned for the viewer to want and expect to see them as victorious—an ironic vantage point considering the movie’s deeper theme. Despite being justifiably pissed, the Clovers’ presence throughout the film comes with a slight “angry Black woman” connotation, which may deter viewers from supporting them. However, the Toros’ second-place finish at nationals behind the Clovers is sweet justice for those who recognize that Black success and white understanding (especially in this context) is the best ending the film could have received.
Speaking personally, another positive attribute of Bring It On is that Black women actually got to be portrayed as cheerleaders; a position of social power in television and film often designated exclusively for white women, despite it being an art form Black people have always been a part of and that our community also holds dear.
Framing Isis (who commanded silence in her school gymnasium with a simple lift of her arms) and the other members of the Clovers as women who are revered at East Compton High School as powerful and popular in their own right adds a nuanced level of importance to the film I’m not sure people really noticed. While the film and other examples in entertainment (2002’s Drumline, the Lifetime series Bring It, and Beyoncé’s 2018 Coachella set come to mind) showcase Black cheerleaders, stand dancers, J-Setters and HBCU culture for a mainstream audience, these magnetic performers have been an integral part of our history for decades.
Bring It On celebrates Black cheerleaders as the innovators they are: the ones who mean business, who are serious about their craft, and will do anything to demand and command the attention they deserve—while not sacrificing their cultural imprints. The same can be said for Black creatives as a whole, who continue to prove that they are truly at the top of the pyramid despite society’s attempts to put us on the bench.
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