As a guilty pleasure watcher of the “Stomp the Yard” movies, I had a simple request for Netflix’s new movie “Step Sisters”: Entertain me. No need for great acting or a decent screenplay, just entertain. Unfortunately, “Step Sisters” has such a convoluted message on race, cultural appropriation and sisterhood that any enjoyment is tinged with confusion. A movie that makes fun of white people should elicit a few laughs or ah-ha moments, but perhaps “Get Out” set the bar too high. Instead, “Step Sisters” struggles to overcome a faulty premise that even its pizazzy dance numbers cannot conceal.
Jamilah (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “CHiPs”), an overachieving college student, has high hopes for Harvard Law School. She also has the credentials necessary to fulfill her dream: legacy status, volunteer work at a local community center, president of a Black sorority and a killer work ethic. When the dean of Westcott University promises to write a recommendation letter for Jamilah, in exchange for her teaching an unruly and majority white sorority (Sigma Beta Beta) how to step, she agrees. The implications of a group of white girls taking over a dance style with deep African roots make her uncomfortable, though, so she hides her association with SBB from her family and friends. (Yes, this plot sounds exactly like “Bring It On.” No, the film does not live up to the same standard).
Unlike other commercially successful female ensemble films like “Pitch Perfect,” “Step Sisters” does not have that one actor who holds up the rest of the team. Echikunwoke gives her best effort, but her character’s motivations are so poorly written that even she cannot deliver an applaudable performance. Furthermore, in comparison to other dance or singing-oriented films, the cast lacks chemistry. The oddball aspects of each individual are not explored. All that’s left are stock characters with backgrounds that allow for forced perspectives on the controversial situation.
“Step Sisters” has moments of self-awareness regarding the cultural appropriation its plot toys with. At one point, Jamilah exclaims that races can’t own things — not rap, not golf, not dance. However, the idea that white people who have trained a few weeks can beat people of color with a strong history of stepping at a national competition does not sit well. (Not to mention the unaddressed inclusion of a step group that wore traditional Chinese qipaos as their costumes, toted oriental fans and sported stereotypical haircuts. But let’s not get into that.) Mixed in with this semi-hypocritical message, “Step Sisters” makes occasional jabs at different forms of problematic liberals like Jamilah’s boyfriend Dane (Matt McGorry, “How to Get Away with Murder”), who embraces Black culture as a way to prove his “wokeness.”
With the involvement of Chuck Hayward from “Dear White People” and Lena Waithe from “Master of None,” “Step Sisters” has enough talent to create a more nuanced and fresh take on race relations. The film instead tramples through sensitive issues with faux pas and cringe-inducing banter. However, the film does try to promote the idea of unity and the performances are well-choreographed with plenty of fire. Although “Step Sisters” fails to deliver an articulate or enlightening lesson on cultural appropriation, it does make the subject more approachable.