“Dancing in September” is the decorous and conventional version of “Bamboozled.” The directorial debut of Reggie Rock Bythewood, who wrote “Get on the Bus” for Spike Lee, this critique of the racial images that blacks themselves choose to serve up on television has a few pertinent things to say, but does so in such a bland and sometimes incredible way that the message has little force. Pic debuts on HBO on Feb. 3, following its world preem at Sundance.
Even if Lee’s approach in “Bamboozled” was too fractured and extreme, his placement of many recent black-themed TV programs and entertainment modes in the insulting and caricatured tradition of minstrel shows was highly provocative. Bythewood’s approach is downright polite by comparison, as he analyzes the commercial pressures on TV creators to be entertaining at all costs while weaving through it a perfectly agreeable but unexceptional love story.
One of the film’s refreshing angles is that it’s filtered through the experiences of a woman in the male-dominated TV world. Tomasina “Tommy” Crawford (Nicole Ari Parker), inspired by her memory of “Roots” having brought her fractious family together like no other event in her childhood, is determined to express truthful depictions of contempo African-American life in her writing. Fired from one show for shooting off her mouth during a story meeting, Tommy is thrilled when George Washington (Isaiah Washington), the lone black exec at a startup minority-slanted network, responds to her pitch for a grounded-in-reality show, “Just Us,” and puts it in development.
Tommy is equally thrilled when she finds James (Vicellous Reon Shannon) to star as the teenager in the series. A kid she first sees selling candy on the street, he proves to be an amazingly quick study in his audition and an absolute natural as an actor. Since James looks rather younger than his stated age of 18, it’s a surprise to learn that he’s got an estranged girlfriend, Rhonda (Malinda Williams), and a little daughter he’s required to pay to see. Despite his general good nature, James is also a manic depressive who needs constant medication.
Completing the happy picture for Tommy is a romance with George that goes through its own long development phase before taking off. But after a brief taste of life at the top, the show begins going sour, dragging the love affair with it; when the ratings decline, Tommy willingly complies with pressure to cater to lowest-common-denominator tastes, transforming a show that initially held to its promise to “keep it real” into a pandering sitcom drenched in embarrassing caricature and exaggeration. A climactic awards gala gives a shaken and repentant Tommy the opportunity for a very public mea culpa.
Despite Bythewood’s own background on such shows as “A Different World” and “New York Undercover,” numerous plot points feel false and contrived, none more so than the tragic fate awaiting one of the major characters. For some reason, both Lee and Bythewood felt compelled to climax their otherwise nonviolent pictures with guns and bloodshed, an incongruous choice that distracts from the themes otherwise developed. It’s also unclear why George is promoted at the struggling new network when the show he personally nurtured tanked so badly.
In the end, the film’s greatest pleasure is the opportunity it affords to watch Nicole Ari Parker sustain a serious lead performance. One of the sexiest young actresses on the scene today, she compellingly projects headstrong confidence as well as a certain vulnerable wariness as her character picks up speed on her way to crashing into a glass wall.
By contrast, Washington seems to follow his character’s lead by playing his cards very close to his chest, leaving George without much dimension or depth. Young Shannon is quite engaging until his character begins carrying the film’s unduly heavy burden of tragedy.
Pic began life as a personal production financed by Bythewood, his wife Gina and numerous black entertainers and execs. In the wake of work-in-progress screenings at last year’s Hollywood Black Film Festival (reviewed March 20, 2000 in Variety) and other fests, HBO came on board, after which further shooting, editing and music scoring were done.