It was nearly almost impossible to locate a press screening or even a movie theater playing School Dance, actor/entertainer Nick Cannon’s directorial debut. After finding the film on demand, it’s now understandable why Cannon and Lionsgate are trying to keep School Dance on the down-low: It’s offensive on so many levels. While described as a “comedy,” the film—about urban teen life and a school dance—is scarce with the humor, but brimming with insulting stereotypes, characters and language.
Cannon, who co-wrote the film with Nile Evans, begins School Dance at a shooting crime scene on school grounds, with a white police officer (on drugs, nonetheless) remarking that the high schoolers—who are predominantly black and Latino—should be put in cages. If that weren’t enough of an inauspicious start, the film flashes back a day to meet the film’s protagonist, Jason (Bobb’e J. Thompson), who’s getting dropped off by his mom (Luenell) at school. Mamma Tawanna is a force to be reckoned with: She’s big, domineering and opinionated, with a larger-than-life personality that makes Tyler Perry’s Madea look positively demure. Jason’s mom is so overprotective of her son that she draws a handgun and waves it around as she walks an embarrassed Jason to the school’s front doors.
With the spate of school shootings in the headlines, guns on campus is a very tricky subject for even the most seasoned directors to tackle as light fare. The aforementioned scenes probably weren’t crafted as social satire or with irony in mind, but regardless of Cannon’s intentions, they just weren’t funny—at all.
School Dance tries to incorporate a number of different tropes, never quite finding footing with any of them. There’s a little bit of romance a la Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story with Jason, who’s black, and Anastacia (Kristinia DeBarge), who’s Latino, as the girl of his dreams. In lieu of the Jets, Sharks, Montagues or Capulets, School Dance keeps the thug life simple, pitting the races against each other. Cannon also mixes in a more urban version of High School Musical by having Jason try out for his cousin’s top dance crew. In order to join, he has to pass initiation by taking Anastacia’s panties at the dance.
There’s also a subplot involving Jason’s cousin, who needs to pay off the $2,000 debt his jailbird father (Katt Williams) owes to one of Anastacia’s brothers. Unsurprisingly, there so happens to be a talent show at the school dance with the cash prize of $2,000. Darren’s crew battles Anastacia’s singing and dance group for the money. The film ends right where it began, with a gun battle in the school parking lot. Jason takes a bullet in the butt for Anastacia, with the hilarity in gang gun violence escaping us once again.
There weren’t nearly enough dance or music scenes in the film, which could have been a great improvement on Cannon’s final product. Instead, the film seemingly tries to milk any humor from the dialogue, in which characters—including the lecherous principal (Mike Epps), an elderly white woman teacher and other authority figures—drop a number of f-bombs and the N word almost as many times as the young girls shake their boobs and booties. (And yes, there is a gratuitous slo-mo carwash scene included in the film.)
It’s too bad Cannon focuses on those elements because there is a cute, burgeoning chemistry between Thompson and DeBarge. Underdog Jason is a caring and intelligent guy, and Anastacia is a sensitive young woman who stands up to her bigoted brothers (one of whom is played by Wilmer Valderrama) and father (George Lopez). While there were numerous distasteful lines throughout the film, Anastacia’s father utters one of the more derogatory as he explains to her his views against miscegenation: “I don’t want some black, nappy-head baby with a big penis running around this house touching all my shit and leaving him for me to raise….” (Again, this is Cannon’s idea of comedy?)
Maybe the filmmakers were aiming for a type of blaxploitation film, but School Dance is neither enlightening nor entertaining. It’s 85 minutes of pure cringeworthy moments that, at least, offends all races, ages and sexes equally.
Director: Nick Cannon
Writer: Nick Cannon, Niles Evans
Starring: Bobb’e J. Thompson, Kristinia DeBarge, Luenell, Mike Epps, George Lopez, Katt Williams, Wilmer Valderrama and The Rangers dance crew
Release Date: In theaters and VOD on July 2
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.