“Open up your pretty brown eyes and look the Hell around!”
Chenille Reynolds (Kerry Washington) asks this of Sarah Johnson (Julia Stiles) in a pivotal moment of the film Save the Last Dance. She’s explaining how white women are seen as a commodity to black men and they often weaponize them against black women. Chenille is giving Sarah a cultural lesson, but Sarah sees it as an attack.
The first time I watched Save the Last Dance I was 10 years old. Now, 14 years later, that line and the monologue that came before it is all I remembered of the film.
And for good reason. Chenille’s speech is one of the most culturally relevant moments of the entire film. However, the film doesn’t seem to know that.
The story of Save the Last Dance is a generic one. It’s about a girl dealing with the grief of losing her mother and learning how to follow her dreams again. In this case, the girl is a ballerina who vowed to never dance again after her mother dies in a car crash on the way to see her audition. The thing that sets this film apart has always been the racial element. Our main character Sarah Johnson is an affluent white girl who moves to a poor area of Chicago to live with her father after her mother’s death and has to get used to going to a primarily black public school. There she meets Derek Reynolds (Sean Patrick Thomas), Chenille’s brother and her obvious love internet. From the moment they clash in English class you tell it’s a two-worlds-meeting kind of romance where a privileged white girl is taught about dancing and life by a man of color so she can be enriched, follow her dreams and go on with her life.
And yes, all of that happens. We even get a Flashdance/Dirty Dancing-esque triumphant ending dance number. Sarah gets into Julliard and has Derek’s love. A perfectly happy ending.
But, wait. What about Chenille?
Throughout the film we see Chenille struggling as a single mother. Her son’s father is immature and refuses to commit to the child’s life in any meaningful way. Her grandmother takes care of her son while she goes to school and tries to have some semblance of a normal life. Halfway through the film, Derek gets into Georgetown, which makes his departure from his sister’s life eminent.
Chenille’s life is overwhelmingly bleak, and yet the film hinges on her apologizing to Derek for giving Sarah a speech that was not only culturally accurate, but relevant to a larger conversation about race that the mainstream refuses to discuss? How sway.
Sarah lost her mother. That’s very sad. But Chenille still has a point. From the moment Sarah walks into the halls of the primarily-black high school, she has a surprisingly easy time. Chenille saves her bookbag to prevent it from being stolen. She gains friends and a love interest surprisingly easily. She’s given access to an exclusive club that’s primarily a black space with no real effort on her part. She gets clowned for being country and corny, but she doesn’t endure any real prejudice. Sarah even brazenly stands up Malakai (Fredro Starr), a dangerous drug dealer, and always avoids retaliation from him. We see a black get choked and thrown into a bathroom stall in the same scene where Sarah escape without a scratch on her.
Sarah glides through a black school and the black community in with an enormous amount of privilege and a high adoration level from almost every black person she meets. The only people who appose her are Malakai (because he feels like his best friend is being taken from him) and Nikki (because she’s upset her boytoy left her for a white girl).
That conflict with Nikki is the catalyst for Chenille’s speech. Nikki and Sarah get into a physical altercation and Nikki remarks that Sarah is another white girl infiltrating a black space and taking away a good black man.
Chenille echoes this point in her subsequent confrontation with Sarah. But the context is different, because Chenille has nothing to gain from breaking this concept down to Sarah. Whereas Nikki was saying it out of a place of jealousy, Chenille was trying to get Sarah to realize that despite the context in which Nikki said what she said, there’s still something Sarah could learn about racial dynamics in this situation.
(The way that the film frames Nikki as a vampy villain in contrast to Sarah’s virginal pureness is an uncomfortable element that doesn’t help matters.)
Unfortunately, Sarah refuses to take this opportunity to confront her privilege. She chooses not to “open up” her “pretty brown eyes”. She dumps Derek and isolates herself entirely. This reveals the weakness of her character. The moment her privilege is called out, she backs off from everyone. She treats Chenille’s words as meaning she doesn’t belong there, but what Chenille was trying to do was get her to become more aware of how much easier things have been for her. Chenille was asking Sarah to be a real friend and recognize how hard it is in the world for black women.
And she’s right.
Chenille pointing out that Sarah is favored was not an attack, it was stating fact. She wasn’t telling Sarah she had to break up with Derek, Chenille just wanted her to understand a cultural context Sarah wouldn’t otherwise be privy to.
But the film frames it as if she’s just a bitter black girl whose mad because of her ghetto life and takes it out on a “poor white girl” who didn’t do anything wrong. So it is Chenille who has to humble herself at the end by getting the main couple back together, even though Sarah never once humbles herself the same way.
Sarah, and by extension the film, is only interested in easy answers. When Sarah says there is only “one world” the film seems to agree with her. Save the Last Dance tries to push a colorblind message by portraying Sarah as the bridge between the two “imaginary worlds” white people and black people have “created”. It insists that a white girl and black guy falling in love is revolutionary within itself even if the white girl has no idea how to think critically about racial dynamics.
If Save the Last Dance really wanted to be revolutionary, it would have engaged authentically with Chenille’s words. The film could have still worked in a scenario where Sarah confronts her whiteness instead of running away from it. Perhaps is it had gone this route, this film would be better remembered. Maybe it would have even given Chenille’s character some justice, instead of using the well-worn “bitter black woman” trope.
She deserved so much better.