Is the Whitest White Girl the Best B-Girl?

B-Girl, a new hip-hop film about break dancing, premiers on Showtime this Sunday. In it, protagonist Angel survives a vicious domestic violence attack and overcomes her physical and psychological obstacles to become the best b-girl on the block.

Filmmakers, Elizabeth (producer) and Emily Dell (writer and director) are admittedly not b-girls, but their experience as women in the movie industry parallel Angel’s quest to break down the barriers within predominantly male spaces.

I love the two triumphant narratives of female empowerment: Angel’s fictional one and the Dells’ real life one. But very few things raise my eyebrows more than another hip-hop movie centered around a blond white woman, with black and brown people as supporting cast.  Since people of color originated breaking and are rarely featured as the stars in dance movies, their decentralization feels disrespectful.

Jules Urich, the white actress who plays Angel, is a preeminent dancer, and the Dells describe her as simply the best. But could her presence also be an example of colorblind casting?  This problematic trend occurs when white actors receive lead roles that contradict a film’s cultural context. I interviewed the Dells to find out.

Ebony Utley/Ms.: Tell me about your casting call and the outreach that you did to find the best actress to play Angel.

Elizabeth Dell: When it came to the feature there really wasn’t a casting for our b-girl. After we met Lady Jules, she became part of the family of this movie and it was just incredibly natural and organic. She was always going to be a star. She’s just one of the biggest, best-known and most impressive b-girls in the world.

Ms.: I noticed that there weren’t any other featured women dancers in the film.

Emily Dell: I chose to isolate Angel a bit more. There are a lot of really amazing b-girls who are coming up in the ranks in a lot of different ways. The younger generation is thriving and that’s very exciting and we’re wholehearted supporters, but as far as this story was going I wanted to make sure it was a clear story.

Ms.: It turns out that Angel is biologically Latina via her mother’s mother, but she’s not quite culturally Latina. If her grandmother hadn’t been a character in the film, we would never know that Angel is Latina. Why did you make some of the choices that you made about ethnicity in the film?

Emily: I actually wanted to have her as a mixed-race individual because I felt like that reflects the modern face of hip hop.

Elizabeth: We were very careful in trying to choose a really wide range of faces in the movie and to reflect how hip hop is always being reorganized, interchanged and reconfigured.

Ms.: Does Jules Urich self-identify as white?

Emily: She does. She grew up in Colorado as the whitest little white girl in her town.

Ms.: Can you imagine someone who just sees a white girl breaking in the promotional materials saying,  “This looks like another example of white people taking over hip hop again?”

Emily: We actually get that a lot. I am totally unthreatened by that comment. I almost want to giggle and say wow, okay. What you don’t realize is that the girl breaking … is the most accomplished, the most bad-ass b-girl in the world.

Elizabeth: Yes, we encounter people that say she should be African American or she should be Asian or whatever. She should be the best b-girl in the world. She should be someone who is not dance doubling. Honestly, an actress who is a different skin tone who can’t actually do this stuff because this is not her world and not her life and not her community was not a better option for us. That was never, in fact, an option for us.

Ms.: As an “angel,” your main character is, essentially, the visibly apparent white woman savior of the darker spaces, particularly the men of color in her troupe. Is that problematic?

Emily: I can’t say I’ve ever thought about it that way. I took her name because it was Angela and shortened it to Angel. If I talked about it as a savior, I would think about it more as a self-savior. But again, as far as the guys in the troupe go, we didn’t make choices about them being darker or lighter or anything. We honestly hired the best guys in L.A.

Elizabeth: I never really thought of it as a white angel saving anyone. I thought of her being her own angel. As a b-girl, she flies. She is an angel on the floor.  She moves like someone with wings.

The Dells note that B-Girl differs from Save the Last Dance, Honey, the Step Up trilogy and other scripted dance films because of its authenticity and integrity. And the film certainly proves that b-boys aren’t always the best and most authentic breakers. But what do you think: Is Jules, the whitest white girl from Colorado, the best and most authentic b-girl? Watch it, then let’s discuss.

Above: Trailer from B-Girl. Movie poster courtesy of B-Girl.

Comments

  1. Brandon says:

    Dr Utley, A very courageous interview, which is much appreciated on behalf of a hip hop head from the 70′s and 80′s!!! I have never seen an interviewer so directly question a casting decision in regards to race. You asked questions I wanted to ask movie makers when I watched hip hop films as a young man in the 1980′s. Breakin’ 1 n 2, Beat Street, Rappin, Krush Groove all had a light skinned or white savior in the films. I know hip hop is beyond color, borders, nationalities etc… However, African and Latino people RARELY get to share their own story in any “blockbuster” movie. Even Kevin Kline, played a white reporter (i.e. the protagonist/main voice) to Denzel Washington’s character (Biko) in “Cry Freedom” a story ABOUT Steven Biko! Emily and Elizabeth’s colorblind naivete is Hollyweird’s (sic) excuse not to feature a person of color in a genre that was developed and nurtured by people of color. Hell, I ain’t surprised though. “White-Folks,” a pimp who happens to be a white man, in HBO’s documentary, “Pimps Up, Hos Down” was prominently featured in that film. It does not matter the genre (e.g. Amistad, Invictus, Blood Diamond), in Hollyweird white folk want to see a story from their point of view. If not the movie gets labeled as an “ethnic film” or worse yet, “A Spike Lee Joint” or “New Jack City.” All due respect to Mr. Lee and Mr. Van Peebles, Jr. Thanks again for a great commentary.

  2. Wow, what a fascinating article! I appreciate the way you take your incisive questions straight to the directors and allow the readers to see how they rationalize these seemingly innocent choices. It goes to show that even the best “intentions” can still result in problematic portrayals.

  3. Yes Ebony, girl yes! This post/interview was SO on point and SO necessary. I can’t believe the film directors let you ask such honest questions. The entire Step Up series puzzles me. It would have been such a unique opportunity to cast young black stars, even the love interest along side Channing Tatum in the first film. Casting white women that largely look the same cements a certain ideal. Thank you so much for writing this!

  4. Jacquelyn says:

    “I saw you with a bunch of people like those people back in Brooklyn”…black and brown people?
    The interviewees had the same lame excuses that M. Night Shyamalan and everyone else have. “Colorblind” is not the best way to do business. Colorblindness is the problem. The people who make the decisions are often white and their white privilege mixed with “colorblindness” as an excuse to not take history and sociological context into consideration often leave people of color as the bad guys or the background.
    People should understand history and sociology; where people are and how things got this way. I think the idea of colorblindness makes people feel like if they see race/ethnicity (or admit to it) they are racist, but really their blindness and ignorance makes their actions and outcomes racist even if they don’t want them to be. We need to talk about and understand race/ethnicity in order to be sensitive about it.

  5. Your questions were simply put: amazing! The directors are so problematic in their unwillingness to seriously engage your question. Point 1: Wow, no casting call … really? How do they know she’s the best if they didn’t do a casting call?! This already sets up a situation for the actress to be someone who they already know. Point 2: They address the issue of race with the assumption in place that if a person of color( black or Asian girl) was chosen she wouldn’t be able to do the moves. It’s like they are assuming a black/Asian girl means incompetence. There are very talented black/Asian/Latinas eligible for the role. It’s funny they try to add some Latin flavor with the grandma but a real Latina isn’t even considered. If race wasn’t apart of the story then why add the grandmother in there?

    GIrl, I love your analysis of the white angel as another white savior. Their response: “We never thought about it” Wow really?

    My only comment is this isn’t an example of colorblind casting. This is example of blatant disrespect for the cultural roots of breakdancing and hip hop. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if there wasn’t such a clear pattern of this happening. Sure white girls can be b-girls but how many movies can one make like this. When do our faces get to represent cultural forms that we originated? In the end, colorblind casting requires that you at least consider all colors … they simply met her and chose her. She was good so she had to be the best …

  6. Eclipse says:

    Dr Utley-

    You know this is a really difficult thing to talk about, I personally know Jules and I know that she is indeed one of the best B-girls in the world. She works hard and studies the craft night and day. The problem for me is not that she was cast, it is the story and the plot. Its everything else about this story that is wrong and stereotypical. These types of film put hip-hop dancing in some cheesy, non-respectable art form. Jules knows this- she is just making a quick buck. Because that what these dancers have to do. I don’t think they interviewed anyone else for the part because in hollywood everyone knows everybody. This movie was probably written with her in mind. What is sad that hip-hop dance forms or dancers have not gained enough integrity and can still be exploited to the point of complete buffoonery. The history is disrespected and so are its founders. It is a question of getting writers that actually write better stories with us in mind. But then again I don’t think Hollywood would buy or sell it- thank you for asking question that really matter. That is where the change really begins.

  7. If they were trying to get the "best" why wasn't Crazy Legs, Popmaster Fabel, etc. in the movie? I wouldn't mind them pandering to a bigger audience with a white lead if that was used as a hook to then showcase some of the real pioneers and legends of b-boying

  8. It would seem to me that it is not that filmmakers *can't* make films starring white people in black cultural contexts but that they have to do their homework and not come up with lame nonsense about "choosing the best (person we already knew)" and "never having thought about" any of the power dynamics they were putting in play. It's lazy and an indication of a bad film. White playwrights and filmmakes such as John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) and John Sayles (Lone Star, Passion Fish, Sunshine State, Honeydripper) do an excellent job with characters from different racial groups because they DO think about it. They are not lazy; they are serious artists. If James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, et al, have to "think about it" then so do these fly-by-night white folks.

    Excellent job gently but directly exposing this issue, Dr. Utley.

  9. Very thoughtful commentary by the author. Thank you for assertively and thoughtfully posing the questions that count…even though they were not completely answered. Is is not the first nor sadly the last time black culture will be ripped off, whitened, then used to make a quick buck at the expense of those who truly represent, created it, or define and will continue it.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ms. Magazine, Sandi Fuego. Sandi Fuego said: white girl is the star of new film "B-Girl" http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/07/03/is-the-whitest-white-girl-the-best-b-girl/ [...]

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