In her dream, she is lifted.
Carried as if Cleopatra atop the strapping bodies of her personal attendants, wreathed in shimmering brumes of crimson and ash, she is lofted upward from the cold floor. She is sidereal, high and brilliant, the hearts and eyes and minds, lungs and tongues, diaphragms and voices and empty palms of the hundreds arranged on writhing, screaming steps of the stadia for her—for her! They coalesce around their star, becoming a beast that she controls, via her strength and volume, the flexing of an alabaster bicep, the vibrating of the only vocal cords they listen to, not merely hear.
And then she is stripped.
The beast has turned, and she is drowning, drowning in the Gaze. The voices she once commanded, the tidal wave she conducted like a symphony, has turned upon her, the buoyant cheers—always, even at their best, softly tinted by blood (this is sport, after all)—replaced by cruel laughter, the peals falling harsh and discordant. She is naked before the erstwhile horde, the thin lines now garroting her.
And so begins Bring It On, unequivocally the Greatest Sports Movie of All Time. (And yes, cheerleading, particularly the competitive style the movie is about, is most definitely a fucking sport.) The film earns this primary place not only for its handling of the banal tropes and beats demanded of the genre but also by its usage of said sport bromides to smartly challenge issues of identity and questions of fairness. Released 15 years ago, in the summer of 2000, Bring It On is a prescient piece of art and a harbinger of the conversations—around culture, privilege, race, sex, and class—currently abounding on college campuses and the internet.
The film's primary conflict—and there are a dazzling array of peripheral ones, hand-springing around like a cyclonic cheer squad—involves naked cultural appropriation, carried out with reckless blatantness. Under the terrifying hegemony of team captain Big Red, the Rancho Carne Toros of San Diego have established a cheerleading dynasty, taking home five UCA national championships in a row. When newly elected team captain Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst)—she of the terrifying dream—begins the squad's pursuit of a sixth with an overly ambitious formation, one of the girls is carted off on a stretcher. The fallen cheerleader is replaced by Missy (Eliza Dushku), a gymnast from Los Angeles who instantly recognizes the Toros' cheers as stolen from the East Compton Clovers, a squad whose routines are filmed and subsumed by Big Red.
Rancho Carne could have stolen their routines from any school, including another one filled primarily with rich white girls; that writer Jessica Bendinger and director Peyton Reed chose not to shows the fearlessness with which Bring It On is imbued. The Clovers' neighborhood is left relatively undefined but assuredly less affluent than the Toros' exceedingly tony San Diego digs, and the East Compton cheer squad is primarily black.
Bring It On's treatment of race and class are handled with surgical precision and in such a way as to harm only the truly devious, which is perhaps the film's greatest flaw. Big Red is (rightfully!) pilloried, but ignorant Torrance—privilege covering her eyes like scales—is spared after a single car ride to East Compton, albeit a soul-crushing one; the punishment the rest of the team suffers is … having to come up with a new routine? The resulting confrontation between Torrance and a group of Clovers, led by their captain, Isis (Gabrielle Union), contains some of the most cutting, funny, and direct language on cultural appropriation ever put to film.
"Every time we get some, y'all come trying to steal it, putting some blonde hair on it, and calling it something different," Isis says. The frustration you can see on her and her fellow Clovers' faces speaks to so much more than just cheerleading; they are victims of a centuries-long robbery, in which great swaths of their culture have been stolen and repackaged without acknowledgment or a share of the spoils. They are coated in generations' worth of ice, the response to Elvis' crown and Vanilla Ice's meteoric rise, preordaining Iggy Azalea's antipodean AAVE. Is it any wonder that it is so cold in here?
When East Compton cannot afford to attend nationals, the movie, having already condemned cultural appropriation, turns its sights on that most insidious of cultural heroes, the White Savior, an execution it performs with touching mercy and surprising celerity. Torrance begs her father's company into underwriting the Clovers' trip with the best of intentions; she truly believes that she is doing the right thing. When Isis tears up that check and tells Torrance that East Compton will get to nationals themselves, she does so less with malice than with pride. In that moment, with the lucre literally a worthless pile at their feet and the two captains standing on the floor, Torrance comes to understand that to be an ally is not the same as being a messiah, and that the striving for, and wholehearted participation in, a mutually agreed upon meritocracy is one of sport's leading values—the only one which Bring It On deigns to let exist.
Oh, but the social issues it kills: gleefully, brightly, a legion of problematic ills which the movie's medicine treats swiftly and sharply as candy. There are the male cheerleaders, denigrated as "Sexy Leslie" and "Jan-Jan the Cheerleading Man" first, only to be called "fags" second; that their masculinity is called into question by a football team so impotent it never seems to get out of its own backfield is one of the movie's great jokes, even as the homophobic slurs lacerate, their edges sharpened now by their current unspeakableness. Football itself is another sacred cow slaughtered, the team portrayed as whooping idiots too blinded by privilege and their own swinging dicks to see that they are, by every definition, losers. They are helplessly lost, and the movie's only sidelined characters—aside from Big Red and Tor's velvet louse of a boyfriend—that Bring It On does not bother to humanize.
After all, as Les says, "Cheering for them is just mean."
The cheerleaders both push up against and administer withering social pressures. The try-out scene, dominated by mean girl pairing Whitney and Courtney, shows the potential of popular girls at their worst; Torrance refusing to have her life's passion be belittled as "sweater monkeys" or Girls Who Yell Things, or Missy joining the squad only after being told that she is not the right "type," confront paternalistic and sexist attitudes about their sport. Torrance, too, struggles against type, eventually refusing to be defined by a boyfriend whose light touch masked his slow strangulation of her.
Even recognizing cheer as a sport is bold, insofar as these things go. Yes, the jokes are made a few times, but they are promptly shot down like clay pigeons; this is a movie where the universe does not fold in on itself when cheerleading is handled as any other sport, and it does not waste time and energy on proving why that is, choosing instead to accept it as fact. There is dignity in those wonders of human architecture, and in Torrance's smile, a power that the movie never denies her or dilutes; Bendinger's career as a former model may have made her especially aware of the fraught nature of looks and popularity, how quickly a necklace can turn into a noose, a nightmare just like Torrance's. (That the issue of objectification is only really explored in the film's fantastic opener is another weakness.)
And then there is the ending. The Toros, after a fleecing from a shady dance choreographer, finally create their own routine. They pour everything they have into their final chance, even taking the time to research and appreciate the other forms of dance and movement with which they enhance their routine—atonement for the cultural appropriation of their past. There are rousing speeches, montages, the appearance of a love interest—properly chastised after thinking himself better than Tor—and the flawless, dramatic execution of the original routine.
And they lose.
This is the final coupe de grace to the sports movie, the only way Bring It On could ever end, with the caning of the old cliché that has caused us to conflate sweat with success, because yes, sometimes you do the right thing the right way and someone else does it better. That those superior someones are the East Compton Clovers softens the blow, sure, but this is a movie one is meant to leave feeling happy, if not a little more socially enlightened.
There is a moment, on her way back from East Compton, in which Torrance is overwhelmed by her fresh Damascene conversion; she has wronged someone else, regardless of her complicity, and her guilt and anguish are very real. When told "it's only cheerleading" by a not-yet-converted Missy, she replies with the most heart-rending line in the film: "I am only cheerleading."
No, Torrance. You are not.