'Step Sisters' film drawing backlash over racial humor

ATLANTA (AP) — The dance comedy "Step Sisters" won't be in theaters until next year, but the film is already drawing a backlash from the African-American community because of subject matter deemed racially offensive by some.

The plot centers on a black sorority sister named Jamilah, who in order to get into law school, has to teach black Greek-stepping to a group of white sorority sisters whose charter is about to be revoked.

On its face, the story line suggests a dubious effort to get some laughs out of racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation. But the film's participants believe the public is getting the wrong impression.

"I think people will come away being pleasantly surprised that the take-away message is actually the opposite of white people culturally appropriating the black culture," said Megalyn Echikunwoke, who plays Jamilah. "The messages are a lot different, and a lot more profound."

Yet a description of the film making its way around the internet has disturbed many blacks.

"The way it was presented to me, it just put me off," said Candice Frederick, a film blogger. "A lot of my readers and followers kind of felt similarly, and a lot less diplomatic. ... There are a lot of (black) people not excited about this movie."

Frederick and others have sent messages to Echikunwoke and to one of the film's producers, Lena Waithe, through blogs and social media. Waithe, who is black, has responded that the film isn't an attempt to portray black fraternities or sororities in a negative light. She told one person the film is in good hands with fellow producer Benjamin Jones and writer Chuck Hayward, both of whom have black fraternity backgrounds.

Frederick said Waithe reached out to her directly and said she would never work on a project involving cultural appropriation and that "Step Sisters" was "really smart and funny."

Frederick said she's open to the movie Waithe is describing, "but this is really about how this movie is being presented."

Echikunwoke said "Step Sisters," in a comedic way, actually takes issue with stereotypes of both blacks and whites, along with society's lack of racial progress. She compares the context of the film to the 2014 movie "Dear White People," a satire about race relations.

"The comedy, stereotypes and the social references are meant to be thought-provoking," Echikunwoke said. "It's definitely meant to be provocative. It might be offensive to some people. It's not like we are trying to be offensive, but I think we're definitely pushing it a little in a good way."

When director Charles Stone, who is black, was first pitched the film, he was opposed to helming it. But after he read Hayward's script, he liked how the story explored the gray areas of crossing cultures, the fear of cultural appropriation and humor in racial stereotypes.

Stone expects some initial backlash, saying the hook line will "immediately get people up in arms." But he said black Greek-stepping is the "perfect" stage to tackle racism and discrimination.

Stepping is a popular dance routine used mostly by African-American fraternities and sororities in competitions on college campuses. Routines typically involve a rhythmic, beat-driven mixture of foot moves and hand claps.

"White and black Greek systems are separate," said Stone, who directed the 2002 film "Drumline." ''They really don't mix together. In the African-American Greek world, it embraces being separate because they are protective of their rituals for the fear of appropriation and another culture profiting off of it. It's a very real fear and concern."

But Stone also noted that crossing cultures isn't necessarily a bad thing. He said the film references black sisters Serena and Venus Williams' breakthrough in the predominantly white sport of tennis, and white rapper Eminem's rise in hip-hop music, which was ignited in the black community.

"We're all human beings, despite the fact we live in a world where there are biases, prejudice and gender inequality," he said. "Here's an opportunity where we all can embrace a common goal in working together regardless of cultural and societal differences."

Eden Sher, who plays white dancer Beth in the film, said she never attempted step dancing until her role in "Step Sisters." The actress said she doesn't have a problem with both cultures learning from each other.

"It would be awesome if we could step without taking anything away or without taking ownership," she said. "We can honor someone's roots ... but let's share. Keeping it totally separated, it just perpetuates this weird modern day segregation."


Follow Jonathan Landrum Jr. on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MrLandrum31.