This week marked 20 years since the release of Bring It On, the iconic high school cheerleading film (and commentary on cultural appropriation), starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union as the respective leaders of the Toros and the Clovers, two competitive cheerleading teams.
More than for Dunst—who at that point in her career had already received acclaim for her roles in the films Interview with the Vampire, Jumani, and The Virgin Suicides—the eventual cult classic marked the true blossoming of Union’s career. Despite having a smaller part in the movie, Union was easily one of the most dynamic actors on screen.
In an interview with Vogue earlier this week, Union spoke about her role as the Clovers’ team captain Isis and the legacy of the movie more broadly:
[Isis] was like a bad stereotype. There was a line in the original script that was like, “Meow! Me-gonna-ow you! My nails are long, sharp, and ready to slash!”…. Huh? And that girl ends up at U.C. Berkeley? How did girls from Compton talk in their minds? How about we make her a very clear leader where her path to cheer justice is done with more class and dignity but also justifiable anger. She doesn’t need to speak in made-up, Blaxploitation dialogue.
The nuance of Union’s acting (and some dialogue changes) helped Isis avoid becoming the kind of one-note stereotype that was common in portrayals of Black teenage girls in white films.
Union continued to explain that very little of the original dialogue written for Isis ended up in the film, as her and director Peyton Reed rewrote many of her lines as they went along:
I knew what it would have taken for Isis to get into U.C. Berkeley. Knowing that that’s where she ended up, I just sort of worked backwards in creating a very strong, intelligent leader who was also justifiably fucking angry.
It’s interesting because I once saw this poll someone made of great cinema villains and Isis was one of them. I was like, “When the fuck did I become a villain?” Why is she a villain? For wanting accountability? Does calling someone out make you a villain? When Black women ask for accountability, no matter the tone, some people hear aggression or rage. They make me the angry Black woman versus someone whose work and intellectual property has been stolen, repackaged, and used to win national championships.
Bring It On is a fun teen movie, but there’s so much more when you pull back the layers. It allows white people to see themselves as complicit in cultural appropriation, but the takeaway for Black audiences or marginalized audiences are so different. It told them, “You’re not crazy. Your emotional, spiritual, and physical labor has been stolen and repackaged. Cultural appropriation is real and the lack of credit for your work and labor is real.”
God, I love Gabrielle Union. She described perfectly one of the reasons Bring it On stands out among its peers—its avoidance of classic “white savior” tropes and affirmation of the value and importance of Black cultural production. Even when that production is just cheerleading routines:
I didn’t want to be saved and I didn’t want the Clovers to be indebted. I wouldn’t have been okay with being saved by anyone else. That’s me in real life and that’s me in Bring It On. I do not find the concept of “Great White Hope” or white-savior movies appealing or entertaining in the least. I don’t like them, I don’t watch them, and I certainly don’t want to be in them if I can at all help it, so that scene was necessary. The Clovers had been doing it on their own this whole time and they weren’t about to accept the Toros’ guilt money.
Read the full interview here.