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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Stomp the Yard
Sylvain White '98 is committed to bringing positive movies about Black men to the screen

By Jill Walker Robinson

The week Stomp the Yard exploded at the box office, an e-mail from a colleague hit at the heart of the college-educated Black moviegoer.

The precision dance moves known as stepping, rooted in the tradition of Black fraternities and sororities, were new to the big screen, but it was the positive message of the movie that stomped out some age-old stereotypes.

"Not since School Daze (nearly 20 years ago) have I seen so many Black characters on screen in college.

None were on athletic scholarships or aspiring to be athletes.

None were rappers or aspiring to be rappers.

All spoke English, not Ebonics.

There was an underlying theme of supporting each other's efforts, particularly men supporting men.

They used words like "archetype" and discussed SAT scores and internships.

The story was not told from the perspective of a white professor who saves them; a white student who joins them; a white girlfriend who understands them; or any other of those usual Hollywood perspectives.

The cast was 99 percent Black, and I think two-thirds were male. That's right-a whole movie full of positive Black men."


"There hasn't been a positive movie about Black college life in I don't know how long, except for Drumline," says Sylvain White '98, director of Stomp the Yard. "I felt there was a strong demand for that. I'm really an advocate for the positive portrayal of African-American males, particularly when you're targeting a youthful audience. I wanted to be a part of that."

White cut out the sex scene that was written into the original screenplay. The PG-13 rating held true-it was a family movie without sex. (Save the Last Dance and Flashdance, other dance movies from different generations, didn't rely on sex to tell the story, notes White.) "I wanted an old grandmother to be able to go see it with her eight-year-old granddaughter and have that experience together," says White.

Opening on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, Stomp the Yard remained at No. 1 for two consecutive weekends this year and eventually grossed more than $60 million domestically. Considering the film's budget was estimated at $14 million, that was quite a profit for Sony's Screen Gems and quite a hit for White, whose prior success was in music videos and commercials.

"Hollywood has always underestimated the African-American audience," White told Variety. "We started with grassroots advertising and were endorsed by the NAACP. The best thing we did, marketing-wise, was defining urban-young, hip-hop-listening kids-and to tap into that, we leaked trailers and scenes onto YouTube, where we had a half-million hits in the first three days."

After losing his brother following a street dance-off in Los Angeles, DJ Williams heads off to a fictional historically Black college in Atlanta. "I don't stomp; I battle." Unfamiliar with "stomping the yard" and the age-old stepping tradition, DJ is eventually swayed and learns to combine his street, hip-hop moves with the old-school, drill-like stepping.

DJ finally gets it. Being a part of "the line"-the rhythm, the precision, the timing of each move-forces every brother to become one. "It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about the whole team." Whether stomping the yard in sync or competing at the national step championship, the focus is not on the individual but the group.

"Instead of doing another dance movie, you have a brand new art form rooted in American culture that's been around for like 100 years," says White. "That's exciting for people who already know it and haven't seen it on screen. And for people who don't know what it is, it's discovery-a new dance form that's right here in the U.S. That's a really good edge."

The movie drew some criticism early on from a small group of Black fraternities and sororities, disappointed that the movie didn't focus on the service side of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. "You're making a movie about the experience of a young man in college," says White. "You could make it about a million things. We had to specifically focus on the step competition. We only had about two hours. You can only focus on that. Hopefully it will open the door, and people will make other movies about the African-American experience in college."

Born in France, White had an American father who was a pro basketball player and a French mother who was a flight attendant. He considered himself an "artsy head" but was attending law school in France. "I didn't know what else to do," says White. "The education system there was not fitted for me. It was too specialized."

White decided to get a liberal arts education. "While at Pomona, I quickly caught the film bug," says White, who founded Studio 47, securing funding to buy video equipment and creating news and variety shows to air on the cable access channel at The Claremont Colleges.

Remembers K. Forrest Beanum '97, White's publicist: "He always had a camera in hand."

"It was always kind of a hobby of mine," says White, who spotted Beanum-one of a few other Black men on campus-walking across the Quad. The two became friends. "I was always told it was an unrealistic or unsafe career." With faculty advisers like Brian Stonehill practicing "tough love" and pushing him to find his artistic vision, and faculty mentors like Sidney Lemelle, Phyllis Jackson and Sheila Pinkel, White says he was nurtured at Pomona. Combined with that were three internships through the Career Development Office-at New Line Cinema, Propaganda Films and a magazine. Ever since Professor Richard Barnes
introduced him to the History of Silent Film in his first film class, White 't put the camera down.

White advises young filmmakers to take advantage of the resources while in school: "When you come out, you don't have crews. You can't create content as easily."

After double-majoring in media studies and film and video production and graduating from Pomona with honors, White quickly earned recognition for his work at the 2001 MTV Music Video Awards and 2001 Music Video Production Association Awards. His 2002 short film Quiet was a finalist at the HBO Short Film Awards. When Sony's Screen Gems called in need of a director for a last-minute project, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, White jumped in and finished it up in two weeks instead of the usual 10.

"I earned the trust of the studio," says White, who next landed Stomp the Yard.

Though it makes his publicist nervous when he answers questions with quips like "Because I'm a genius," White's confidence is backed by his work. He turned the studio's first project around quickly, and Stomp's low budget meant high profits when the movie topped box office charts. Instead of hiring 10,000 extras for the final step competition, 400 extras appeared in the scene, with White instead relying on the camera positioning to create the illusion of a filled stadium.

What he did with the movie itself was spotlight a dance form.

"All dance movies in the past have appealed to female audiences, not necessarily male audiences," says White. "Why is this?

"This form of dance-it's something that guys and girls do. It's very testosterone-driven, very masculine when guys do it. These kids take it very seriously. They're up on the bus. They're going to step shows. The stakes are really high. This doesn't really feel like dancing. It is dancing but it feels like a sport-the infrastructure, the competition."

So White shot the film as he would a sports or martial arts film, bringing the audience into the action rather than having them watch from their seats. In dance films such as Chicago, West Side Story and Save the Last Dance, the dance moves are shot from the audience's perspective. In Stomp the Yard, White studied films like Hoosiers and Any Given Sunday, shooting as if the audience were on the court or field.

"This is how we're going to get the guys," says White. "That gave the film a different feeling."

The audience literally feels as if they are looking up at the dance moves at times; they're in the middle of the action; they're part of it.

White has two careers these days-one as director of Columbia Pictures' futuristic thriller Static and Warner Brothers' live-action feature Ronin-and a second as a producer and co-owner of Media 3 Films, an independent production company that launched this year.

"Media 3 is an opportunity to create a slate of films that are diverse and multicultural, that appeal to a worldwide audience that we haven't seen in films except for maybe in a film like Crash," says White. "The industry isn't going in that direction, but it's my personal agenda to try to steer it in that direction to have that kind of impact on the industry." What project is on his personal agenda?

"A French epic graphic novel, a sci-fi adventure, that I grew up reading as a kid," begins White.

His publicist shakes his head to cut him off. He doesn't want him to give it away and have someone else buy the rights. "It will be my Lord of the Rings," says White.
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