A brief on the political aesthetics of "Step Up: Revolution"

The newest film in the Step Up franchise, Step Up: Revolution piqued my interest as one of the writing projects I’m currently working on concerns the depiction of political radicals in American cinema during this, the post-Soviet epoch. The first two films in the series addressed issues of class in a facile way but generally progressive way: mutual love of dance and sexual attraction are able to unite people with vast differences in social standing to winning a contest. This installment keeps the poor boy meets and falls in love with a rich girl narrative framework, here the stakes towards which they unite are much higher. In this film the class element in the Step Up series refers not just to the notion of “stepping up” to win a place in a dance company or a street contest but also refers to issues of social mobility. The final goal which unites the two lovers, Ryan and Emily, is to keep capitalist gentrifiers from taking over a working class neighborhood in Miami and the means by which they attempt to do this is organized, direct action.

To say that the dancers in the film are socialists would be an overstatement. The initial organizing impetus for the dance troupe and production team known as “The Mob” is to win a YouTube contest rewarding money to whichever group can get 10 million views on their channel. While this is incentive, we learn from the group’s co-founder Sean that they are more interested in having “a voice” and we see through their action a socialist mode of political subjectivity that becomes framed in such a way that they become populist heroes fighting against capitalism.

One of the most visible ways we see the groups anti-capitalistic core is where the group practices. Taking no heed to property laws that make trespassing illegal even in areas not used by their owners, The Mob practices in one of Miami’s many unoccupied or partially constructed buildings. Additionally the similarity between the name “The Mob” and “The Masses,” the early 20th century American socialist politics monthly, is noteworthy. While it’s unlikely that the authors planned this, it is yet another of many qualitative overlaps with socialist organizations. Furthermore the idea of a dance troupe being a revolutionary avant-garde is evocative of more early 20th century radical history, this time in the form of anarchist Emma Goldman’s famous quote: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

As Sean introduces Emily to members of “The Mob” we see that the group is an approximation of a good model for an international socialist organization. For one, thanks to the ethnic population of South Florida, the membership is truly international in origin. Secondarily, we see a skilled division of labor amongst the group to maximize the efficiency of their production. Additionally we see that the dancers, like good socialists, are not prone to the vices of excessive drinking or smoking as it keeps them from being able to perform their labor of love. Whether or not they have to abide by a “Points of Discipline for Party Members” would be purely conjectural, but it is worth noting the difference between this group and that found in The Anarchist Cookbook. While the message the group puts out may be ambiguous, at least as Sean’s voiceover narrates, “When the Mob speaks, everyone listens.” Though not at first explicitly political, as the group develops they receive positive, populist expressions of sympathy and solidarity as a result of their actions, which would presumably lead to greater community involvement. Finally, we see that The Mob’s joy is dangerous. In the opening dance scene they stop traffic outside of Ocean Drive, Miami’s upscale shopping area, and the one following they invade SoHo Studios, one of the more famous Wynwood art galleries. In the first case normal business activity is interrupted by spectacle while in the other the hallowed halls of culture are briefly occupied, alluding to practice outlined by anti-capitalist, Situationist theorist Guy Debord.

After Emily has been told by her perspective Wynwood dance company leader that she needs to be more unique, seeing this dance performance, and reading the note that “Sometimes you need to break the rules” given to her by Sean that she decides to try to join The Mob. Emily is immediately given the role of lead dancer.

Following the revelation that a developer, who happens to be Emily’s father, wants to buy up local businesses and homes from renters the group diverges from it’s initial plans for “be heard” and becomes something of a proper socialist undertaking that instead wants “to be listened to”. While previously The Mob’s events were for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, they decide they want to try to protect their neighborhood from capitalist investment.

While terse and lacking theoretical depth, the dialogue following this revelation could be taken from socialist debates on the nature of art. While I doubt that Duane Adler and Amanda Brody, the authors of the script, bothered to research this it doesn’t take away from the substance. After Sean and Emily learn of her father plans to purchase and redevelop the working-class waterfront area she proceeds to exercise directive control of the group their her revolutionary exhortations:

“You’ve got four million viewers but you’re not saying anything that actually matters. It’s not ok to make art for fun anymore.”
“What are you proposing?”
“Enough with performance art, it’s time for protest art.”

Following this decision the group decides to “mob” the planning meeting that decides the fate of the projected gentrification area. After stopping the meeting by pulling a fire alarm, the group dances in hats and business attire. Reading direct messages into their dance is the beyond the realm of my interpretive powers, however it is worth noting that one of the sampled songs in the quasi dub-step song the DJ stitches together is by the notoriously anti-corporate musical group Radiohead. The grand finale of this particular Mob dance production? A giant metal sculpture of an executive holding a briefcase that opens and has spray-painted on the inside: “We are not for sale.”

While Trip, developer Bill Anderson’s protege, is undaunted by this performance the Mob is awash with pride as now they have achieved the national recognition they so badly wanted as the YouTube video of the performance is viewed by millions. The wave of euphoria is short-lived. Eddie discovers Emily’s real identity and decides to have an “mob” performance without Ryan’s authorization. This performance, at a private banquet, results in arrests and the group’s expulsion from the contest. Emily upbraids them both for the stunt that outed her as an anti-capitalist sympathizer and activist to her Dad. However she soon realizes the Ryan had nothing to do with it and her just formed sentiments against the group are reversed, leading her to greater resolve to halt the gentrification process.

The Mob unites despite the attempted (Stalinst?) grab at leadership, and the film closes with the capitalist developer Bill Anderson taking a paternalist role to enhance and develop the community that already exists rather than kicking them out for a richer group of tenants. The new goal of the group accomplished, the leads kiss.

While it would be acceptable for the film to end here, it’s not. The Mob faces one last test of their “socialist” identity and fails. Given the opportunity to work as part of a promotion team for Nike, The Mob immediately assents to the offer and thus becomes commodified. This isn’t surprising as the dance team was never truly socialist in orientation, but that a group that had just fought so hard for the working class would so quickly and happily join forces with an trans-national corporation widely known for it’s child labor and incredibly pay is telling – not of the group itself but the relations which produced it.