Stomp the Yard

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This review was written for the  theatrical release of "Stomp the Yard." 

The best thing about "Stomp the Yard" is the opportunity the movie gives to talented actor-dancer Columbus Short to strut his stuff. He is no newcomer to show business. He has performed in Savion Glover's "Stomp," worked as a choreographer and acted in television. Yet as the central character in this musical melodrama about step dancing in black fraternities, Short displays an uncanny dramatic sensibility to go with the eye-catching athleticism of his dance moves.

Unfortunately, this will not be a widely seen performance. The Screen Gems production is aimed narrowly at those within the black community with an affinity for a particular kind of dancing. The film could do $20 million-range business but should fade after a couple of weeks, then perhaps win a larger audience in video.

The story centers on "stepping," a dance style with a strong connection to black fraternities. It relies on complex rhythms and moves that incorporate swift hand and foot movements and facial exaggerations. At times, it closely resembles such street dances as hip-hop and break dancing. In competitions, the dances are as fiercely aggressive, similar to rap showdowns with its macho posturing and intimidation.

DJ (Short) is your traditional youth from the wrong side of the tracks for the posh and polished Atlanta black university his mother sends him to after he gets out of prison for a bum rap. The fight that sent him to jail, after a competition in an underground Los Angeles club, also got his brother killed. So he makes a sullen and solitary figure on campus, sticking to his books and cutting the university lawn as part of a work-study program run by his no-nonsense uncle (Harry J. Lennix).

What shakes him out of his funk is glamorous co-ed April (Meagan Good), whom he falls for at first sight. Only she happens to be the girlfriend of Grant (Darrin Henson), the star dancer for a champion fraternity stepping team. So DJ joins a rival fraternity, run by the determined Sylvester (Brian White), to go up against the arrogant Grant and win his lady love.

The screenplay is by Robert Adetuyi, but a Writers Guild arbitration has determined his script is based on a screenplay by Gregory Anderson. Whoever is responsible, the story has an unerring instinct for cliches and rote characters as it sorts through a soap opera of class divisions, fraternity rivalries and sexual jealousy stretching back to the previous generation.

The role of DJ has only slightly more heft than the supporting roles, but Short smartly underplays his character's anger and frustrations so that his sensitivity emerges logically rather than becoming one of those miracle transformations that happen only in movies. DJ's self-centeredness, in fact, is a defense mechanism, probably even an intelligent one, in an environment that feels alien and often hostile.

One fortunate thing about "Stomp" is that for once, the black youth experience is played out in the world of fraternities and a university rather than of gangs and drugs. Nevertheless, at least according to this movie, the trash-talking and male chauvinism remain the same.

Director Sylvain White relies far too much on his commercial/music video background. Rapid cuts change camera angles in the blink of an eye, and dances speed up or slow down to suit his manipulative whims. Unfortunately, the one thing short filmmaking should have taught White -- that brevity is the soul of cinematic expression -- is ignored as the film drags on in a series of bad plot twists and false endings. Dave Scott's choreography is often dynamic and imaginative, but only a true fan is going to crave this much stepping.

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