A promising debut from Reggie Rock Bythewood, “Dancing in September” is a handsomely mounted tale of love and compromise set against the backdrop of network TV. Ambitious in scope, pic gives thoughtful treatment to a number of themes, including the representation of African-Americans on television, the conflict between art and commerce and the struggle of upwardly mobile blacks in contempo society. Written and directed by Bythewood (who penned Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus”) with an eye toward making the film accessible to a mainstream audience, the exceptionally well-cast film is likely to snag a distribution deal and, with careful placement, could maximize its crossover potential.
A quick prologue sets up the parallels between Tomasina “Tommy” Crawford (Nicole Ari Parker) and George Washington (Isaiah Washington), creating a sense of inevitability that the two should meet. At a young age, both are shaped by television. Eight-year-old Tommy is riveted by the miniseries “Roots”; it’s one of the few times her parents stop fighting long enough to sit on the sofa. Meanwhile, George uses his church-donation cash to buy a vial of Billy Dee Williams’ sweat, a transgression that prompts a monthlong ban on TV viewing, a punishment George likens to child abuse.
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With that seriocomic setup in place, Bythewood segues into the grown-up versions of Tommy and George. Now a network TV exec, George is in charge of programming at the fictitious WPX. Tommy, an aspiring writer, wants to bring challenging, smart programs to TV and pitches the network a semi-serious show called “Just Us,” centering on a juvenile offender adopted by a judge and her husband.
Won over as much by Tommy’s idea as her good looks and uncompromising attitude, George champions the show. An accidental encounter with a talented, scrappy local teen named James (Vicellous Reon Shannon, of “The Hurricane”) leads to a lucky casting break for the show’s key character, Maurice. They shoot the pilot; it tests well. The network approves the show, and soon Tommy and George have that rare commodity, a primetime hit. (Pic’s title refers to a show’s being picked up for the fall lineup.) Against the backdrop of the developing show, George and Tommy fall in love.
But success brings burdensome responsibilities, including the need to appease advertisers, the audience and higher-ups at the network. Tommy, who had initially refused to water down her characters or dialogue, finds herself doing just that. Blinded by her own success, Tommy finds herself branded a sellout.
Somehow, that doesn’t prevent an NAACP-type organization (here called the CPAA) from nominating the show for an image award, one of the few prickly incongruities in Bythewood’s otherwise intelligent script. Though Tommy’s blueprint for “Just Us” portrayed African-Americans in a sensitive, thoughtful manner, the show stoops so low for the sake of ratings that the award nomination ends up seeming like a cheap plot contrivance to facilitate a surprising and poignant conclusion.
Besides the debate over artistic integrity vs. commerce and the struggle of two adults trying to make an intimate relationship work (credibly realized by appealing actors Parker and Washington), the film also tells the story of young James, the neighborhood kid whose quick rise to fame and wealth proves more than he can handle. It’s compelling material, grippingly well performed by Shannon, but this thread turns so dark and violent that you’re left thinking it might have made an interesting movie on its own, rather than a secondary story in what is perhaps an overly ambitious canvas.
But Bythewood’s ambition is worthy of his talent, and this is an impressive freshman effort. Pic could stand a little trimming, but pacing in general is sharp and up-tempo, much like Bythewood’s writing. Bill Dill’s lensing expertly plays up Sue Chan’s production design, whether it’s the slick, minimalist interiors of the network or the faux-reality sheen of the “Just Us” set. Original music, ranging from rap to jazz, is terrific.