Twenty years ago, a women-led film packed with somersaults, splits, jumping jacks, and aerial cartwheels became the breakout hit of the summer, bringing in a worldwide total of $90 million from an $11 million budget. Bring It On was released during the final week of August when blockbusters were tapering to an end, and it could be said that little was expected of this production set in the rigorous world of competitive cheerleading. It wouldn’t fail, but neither was there any expectation that this would be all anyone would talk about once school was in session and 20 years after that. This little wonder, perfectly named, would make household and cult names of its leads (Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union) while simultaneously shaping Halloween squads for the next couple of decades. In Hollywood, this is the kind of film that would have positioned Dunst as the one viewers would quote and young girls would idolize, but it’s Union whose supporting role took on supernova status, making her turn as Isis, captain of the East Compton Clovers a cultural touchstone for Black girls in sports and Black femmes who slay.
In the contemporary era of packaging wellness and sisterhood into witty one-liners that are often taken for granted, phrases like Black Girl Magic, Black Girl Joy, and Black Excellence are well-meaning as affirmations, but they say nothing about the work required to embody these realities, the responsibility to project effortless goodness. And yet they’ve become so synonymous with the language used to celebrate Black women, taking away any nuance and leaving little space to truly appreciate the perseverance and craft of those we are applauding. Union was 27 when she starred in Bring It On, and though pushing 30, she had spent most of her career playing a teenager, different in every instance, but with a familiar drive and caustic wit. Her ability to seamlessly morph into someone years younger regularly makes the rounds online with fans chiming in with the well-known “Black Don’t Crack” quip, a cute mantra which makes the reality far less sinister—that as one of the few visible Black women working in Hollywood, little opportunity was available for Union to showcase anything more than teenage angst.
As much as Black girlhood is stifled throughout our lives by misogynoir and racism, when it comes to working in films, perceived youthfulness will guarantee a constant stream of work for the lucky few chosen to play second fiddle to white ingenues. As they get older, maturity might mean a semblance of stability, maybe even awards and again for the lucky few who will have lasted in the industry. It’s a hard weight to balance and in the late ’90s to early 2000s, unless a Black director was behind the camera, Black women would not be given the space to shine as film leads or sink their teeth into meaty roles that treated them as captivating subjects. That is what makes Bring It On so special.
Union was cast in a role that would have found her supporting the growing pains of Dunst as she grappled with the knowledge that her cheerleading squad (the Toros) had basically cheated their way to success for years. Not only did they cheat, but they had stolen all their moves from the Clovers. Dunst was positioned as a character whose life would be rocked, who would stumble for a while before ultimately redeeming herself and becoming just as good as she thought she was. This could have easily made the film a typical, coming of age narrative, but it was Union who made it both social commentary and appropriation class 101. Students you make take your seats.
As Isis, she was able to portray frustration and visible disdain at the casual ways the rich kids from the white part of town picked and cast aside what moves they would take from routines she and her team had spent hours choreographing. Like Solange’s character in the sequel Bring It On: All or Nothing or Bianca Lawson in Save the Last Dance, Union could have been reduced to the jealous mean girl who went out of her way to target the guilty but very sorry and nice blonde. Instead, she was wholly unimpressed by the moves they poached, almost amused at their attempts to recreate rhythms which for her girls were damn near innate, “I know you don’t think a white girl made that shit up,” and she was ultimately vindicated with a victory she didn’t need but which she had always deserved.
Union made the film about so much more than cheerleading and the high-intensity drama of high school cliques. Intentionally or not, she made a case study on the seemingly mundane but deeply bruising ways that structures of power and accessibility privileged certain communities to the detriment of others. She showed that success didn’t rely only on self-belief as so regularly touted in American capitalist philosophy, but that it was a series of luck, social status, money, and race. Without knowing how perversely Black women would be marginalized with the advent of social media, in Bring It On, Union called out cultural and artistic theft, the myopic concept that hard work will get you to the top—“We’ve had the best squad around her for years, but no one’s been able to see what we can do”—and the fragility of white womanhood when called to hold itself accountable.
In a role that could have been forgettable and hollow, the future entrepreneur and activist squeezed lemonade out of shriveled lemons and made high school, dance and clapping back so much sweeter for the Black girls who would come after.
Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer who documents Black lives around the globe—their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Lapham’s Quarterly, The New York Times, Longreads, The New Republic, New York Magazine, Literary Hub, among others. She is currently a writer at Vanity Fair.