Blaxploitation is alive and well
Bille Woodruff
Jessica Alba, Mekhi Phifer, Lil’ Romeo, David Moscow, Joy Bryant
The Setup: 
Completely selfless woman becomes a hip-hop dancer because she wants to help disadvantaged kids!

I refused to see this when it was out, though soon the joke was on me as several people later told me how wholly awesome it is. It kind of is for the first half, but in the second half all the cheery lies it has been telling you begin to mount up and make one turn against it.

We begin at this Manhattan club where Jessica Alba plays Honey Daniels, the absolute happiest bartender ever. This is one of those movies wherein the studio couldn’t be bothered to kick in enough cash for a complete credits sequence, so after the rather cool speed-up-slow-down credits get to the movie title, it’s just unadorned words on a screen. Then Honey gets off work and takes to the dance floor. It would seem that there is a vibrant subculture in which women perform elaborate dance routines in hopes of attracting the attention of music video directors, who apparently routinely comb the dancers at these clubs in order to recruit talent that is more authentically “street” for their videos.

Now, those of you who have NOT studied film at the highest halls of achievement may not see that this film operates on many rich narrative planes at once. You see, not only does Jessica Alba play a CHARACTER named Honey, Jessica Alba IS a honey, forcing audiences to watch this film on two levels at once, if one hopes to gather all of the deeper meanings presented within.

So Honey has an aesthetically-challenged rival in Katrina, who also attempts to garner attention for her moves at the club. As fate would have it, Honey draws the eye of some music video director, who brings her in and fires the indignant choreographer who had been engaged up until then [could this very thing one day happen to Honey? It IS a harsh show-biz world out there]. Honey, whose moves are the freshest, leads the dancers is moves that are supposedly new and different, though to the eye untrained in the subtle variations in hip-hop dancing, look no different than what came before.

But what of the larger community? It’s the same old thing about wide-eyed cherubs who end up being drawn into a world of crime and drugs. Honey sees these kids dancing out in the street and decides that their “Flava’s hot.” She invites them to come to the classes she leads at the community center. They do, but they’re throwing all this attitude, saying “I’m teaching YOU,” and storm out again. But the unflappable Honey understands, and sees the kernel of talent in the young dancer portrayed by rapper L’il Romeo. It would seem that he, like many of the young men in the neighborhood, are being groomed by the local thugs to be tomorrow’s drug dealers. Well, Honey may have something to say about that.

Many movies have the “and then” structure. “The killer gets in the house and then he kills someone and then the survivor calls the police and then…” But Honey has the “But” structure. “Honey is a bartender but she wants to be a dancer but she’s in this tough neighborhood but she has real talent but her mother doesn’t respect her profession but Honey believes in herself…” etc.

Anyway, the raw, athletic moves of the streets as exemplified by Honey’s wholly new choreography takes the music video world by storm, and soon Honey is Blowin’ UP, in demand for virtually everyone’s video and having no time for herself—except when she magically DOES have time for herself, which she uses to inspire the kids in her neighborhood and encourage them to dance, etc. At one point the people at the music video place aren’t feelin’ her moves, so she takes a little walk around, and we see her drawing inspiration from the streets! The genuine, authentic streets! So she takes some dance moves from basketball playing and other stuff. The film might as well have been holding up a sign: “She draws inspiration from her community.” At his point I was totally sold on this film. I loved its happy, upbeat, inclusive vibe of people just wanting to help their fellow man and give back in any way they could. Sure, it’s ludicrous and divorced from reality, but the big-hearted spirit of generosity fills its every corner, which makes it a feel-good favorite, like Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. And like that movie, all these people want to do is help their community. Honey never has a day in which she’s just tired and wants everyone to leave her alone, has no desire to use her new money to get herself out of the neighborhood or to trick out where she lives, her one and only desire in life is to use her new position to uplift her community. Like Breakin’ 2, the story centers around a community center that offers kids a chance to do something positive, but is being closed because of financial issues and building codes. This movie is really almost a virtual remake.

The difference is that Breakin’ 2 existed in a completely outrageous realm of fantasy, whereas this one has pretensions of taking place in the real world, which is where I start to have some problems with it. At 50 minutes in, it’s time for us to have some conflict, which happens all at once as the drug dealers get pissed that Honey is keeping Li’l Romeo away from them, the community center has to close, and Honey won’t put out for her producer and he blacklists her… This movie wants to be seen as addressing real-world problems, but the pat and magical way in which things all work out started to make me angry, because, well, maybe it’s just me, but my bills aren’t miraculously paid simply by my believing in myself.

And then all the questions the movie has successfully put off until now start crashing in: Why are there so many white kids in Honey’s flock of disadvantaged tykes? [see above.] In fact, why isn’t Honey herself black? We see from the “making of” short on the disc that the woman who inspired the character of Honey is the one who plays Katrina, who is black. So why has the heroine of this African-American community been made a very pale “mixed race?” And let’s face it: Honey’s moves are in fact NO different than anyone else’s music video choreography. Is the movie going to face the reality that after a month or two she won’t be ‘fresh’ anymore and will be unceremoniously dumped? [Consider the current state of once red-hot producer, Rodney Jerkins, who did music for this film.] Will the movie face the reality that Honey really isn’t all that talented? Will the movie acknowledge the reality that the ‘dream’ our heroine is aspiring to is one in which she is exploited for her body, and in fact offers no longevity or future? Is the movie going to address what will happen when Honey turns 30?

I’ll give you the short answer: No.

Because the main purpose of this movie [and most current movies aimed at African-Americans] is to PANDER to the black community. And when you are PANDERING to the black community the LAST thing you can suggest is that African-Americans need to improve themselves in any way. Thus their fairly lame and limited dance moves are presented as THE SAME THING as Balanchine ballet. Honey draws dance inspiration from watching basketball—because basketball is really dancing! And of course, the LAST thing an African-American needs is education! So when Honey confronts her mother, who, cruel vixen that she is, isn’t 100% convinced that being a music video background dancer offers a solid foundation to build a life upon, Honey says “Maybe I’m dumb because I haven’t been to Paris or Milan or wherever. But to me [when she sees the kids dance] it doesn’t get much better than that.” And you want the Mom to say “Well sweetie, if you HAD been to Paris or Milan, you might develop some standards that would show you it DOES get better than some kids forgetting their troubles for one second by dancing.” But not in this movie.

And let's not forget the pandering we have to do to the large part of the audience that will be made up of white suburban teenagers who think the world of hip-hop is just so exciting and authentic. I suspect that this is why Honey is so non-black, and why the kids in her group of the disadvantaged are white. Because you too, suburban white teenager, are as authentically "street" as any of those kids from the projects, and you are fly enough to be a hip-hop dancer too! Oh, and those poor black kids, don't worry about them, they'll be fine if they just start believing in themselves.

So it would seem, as Honey is told by her friend, that the answer to every single situation one faces in life is simply to ‘believe in yourself.’ So Honey decides that the way to get the rest of the money to open her own dance studio [the first half of the money came from ALL of her music video earnings—so selfless!] is to put on a show. She’s going to put on a hip-hop dance show at this condemned church, and believes that enough people will pay $20 each to see kids from the community do the same dances they perform in the street for free every day. But they do—the place is packed to the rafters! And the whole concert seemingly consists of one song! And Honey’s mom sees that teaching kids to dance IS a worthwhile profession… even if it makes no money! And Li’l Romeo’s Mom, who previously was “too busy working” to follow where her child is, is suddenly so moved to see that he can dance in front of a bunch of people! And the drug dealer that wanted him as an employee magically vanishes and never shows up again! And Honey’s loan officer has contacted corporate organizations on her behalf who will give her funding! That apparently never gets cut when the corporations have a bad year! And it doesn’t matter that Honey got blacklisted by her video director—because all the artists want her, and insist on hiring her themselves! So you see kids, everything just magically works out when you believe in yourself!

Who says Blaxploitation is dead? And this movie is blaxploitation at its finest, as it’s purpose actually IS to exploit black people, and separate them from their money, while feeding them lies and fantasies that will keep them from questioning their circumstances, and keep them content to stay in their place! It’s one thing to be like Breakin’ 2 and say “okay, this is pure fantasy,” but this film pretends to be dealing in reality, and I suspect that a great deal of its audience [few over 20, I suspect] will be able to recognize the vast levels of fantasy going on here. We’ll see how much believing in themselves helps them when they have a kid and no education and no skills [except hip-hop dancing!] and are being kicked out of their apartment.

There more I think about this movie the more angry I get.

Should you watch it: 

Go ahead, watch it for yourself.