'Bring It On': From spirit fingers to appropriation, the cult sports film is much more than a teen rom-com

"Bring It On," the 2000 teen rom-com starring Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union, offers a thoughtful exploration of cultural appropriation. Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Editor's note: This story explores themes and language that might be offensive and triggering to some, including the topic of sexual assault and the use of anti-LGBTQ language.

TORRANCE SHIPMAN WALKS across the nearly empty gym at East Compton High School. She's there to right a wrong. Not long ago, she discovered that her entire award-winning cheerleading career was built on lies and stolen routines. At regionals, Shipman and her Rancho Carne Toros performed a routine from a choreographer who had peddled the same one to multiple teams. While East Compton wowed with its original performance, the same one the Toros originally stole, now it was time to see whether the Toros' new unappropriated routine would stand up to what East Compton would be bringing to nationals. The only problem? When the list of cheerleading squads slated to go to nationals was posted, the East Compton Clovers weren't on it.

Which is why Torrance is here. And why she has persuaded her father's company to sponsor the Clovers. And why she has come to deliver the check to the Clovers' captain, Isis.

The Clovers are sitting, huddled in the circle in the middle of their gym, and when Isis sees Torrance walk through the door, she rises to greet her. Torrance sticks out the check, and Isis appraises it. "What is this?" she asks. "Hush money?"

"No," Torrance answers, defensively.

"Oh, right. It's guilt money," Isis says. "You pay our way in, and then you sleep better at night knowing how your whole world is based on one big old fat lie."

Isis takes the check, rips it into little pieces and throws it into the air.

EXPLORING RACE THROUGH the lens of sports is not a new genre in cinema, but often those things are signposted and about the past. "Remember the Titans" was about the integration of schools. "Glory Road" was about the integration of basketball. "42" was about Jackie Robinson integrating baseball. You knew what you were getting before even entering the theater. But then there was "Bring It On."

Some see it as just a teen comedy, but it's so much more than that. Widely released on Aug. 25, 2000, the film captures societal and racial tensions that reach far beyond the walls of high school. It is, in many ways, a piece of art that resonates as much today as it did then, especially for me.

Just ask Gabrielle Union, who plays Isis in "Bring It On," about the perspective she brought to each tear of that check: "F--- your money," Union says. "[Isis] didn't want to rely on anyone other than ourselves, our own community ... didn't want to be indebted to them ... didn't want to owe them. The gift that we gave you was the truth; now go away."

"Bring It On" puts its depth on full display in scenes like the one between Isis and Torrance. "This film is about truth and accountability," Union says of the film, which spawned several sequels. "So much Black and brown intellectual, physical and emotional labor was used to build this country and used to create every major f---ing art form. And we've never been given the credit. We've never been given the ability to use our own intellectual property for our own benefit."

ARGUING THAT "BRING IT ON" is a serious piece of critical cinema has been my thing since I was in high school. No one really expected the movie to be more than a teenage romp about cheerleading that had nothing more to contribute to popular discourse than a few jokes that wouldn't age well. When the actors showed up for their own cheer camp, they all expected to be in this film called "Cheer Fever," and they weren't expecting much themselves.

"It was the movie we took because we didn't get the things we actually wanted," Union says. "I wanted to be in 'Sugar & Spice."

I was only 9 years old when the film came out, but once I found it, I was enthralled. When the film's writer, Jessica Bendinger, asked me in July how many times I'd seen "Bring It On," my memory failed me. I didn't remember the first time I'd watched it. The most recent had been the previous week. And then there was that stretch of nearly three months where I'd watched it almost every morning.

"You've seen it more than me," she said, laughing. "I've only watched it maybe 10 times."

That watching-the-film-every-morning-for-three-months thing actually happened more than once. In truth, I've been known to watch the movie multiple times in a day. I think my record was four. (I was sick in college, and it was the only thing that made me feel better.) If I'm being honest, I've seen "Bring It On" more than 300 times. Which is more than any other film, much less one most people consider to be a fun teeny-bopper comedy.

But "Bring It On" is not just a teen rom-com; it is one of the best sports movies ever made, often discounted because of the simple fact that it's about women who are cheerleaders. Don't come into my mentions or slide into my DMs. I will not concede this point. I am dying on this hill.

What makes "Bring It On" so good isn't the one-liners or the catchy cheers, it's that 20 years later, it's more relevant than ever. The entire film is an exploration of appropriation and the way whiteness works in our culture. It tackles race, gender and sexuality in stunning ways. Somehow within 98 minutes, queer politics gets addressed too. It's a breakneck cultural mirror. It's a messy film, and not all of it aged well. There are fat jokes, the use of the R-word, blurred consent, slut-shaming jokes and a particularly egregious ableist joke about a cheerleading injury, among other faults in the PG-13 film. Still, it is a film that I love both for its messiness and for what it strives to be, underneath misguided and dated locker room quips. It is both an artifact and a crystal ball.

And so, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, we present the four essential scenes in one of our nation's least appreciated explorations of race -- as determined by me. Because, you know, 300 viewings.

Scene 1 - 12:44 mark: The Tryouts

Missy Pantone (Eliza Dushku) does not have the expected look of a cheerleader. She's wearing baggy pants with a wallet chain looping from her pocket. The hem of her black Buddha shirt stops just short of her waist band. On her left arm, what looks like a tribal tattoo pokes out from under the sleeve of her shirt.

"Tattoos are strictly verboten," Toros cheerleader Courtney (Clare Kramer) says. "Sorry."

Missy licks the tip of her middle finger -- that she is also using to flip off Courtney -- and smudges the ink on her arm. "I got bored during fourth period," she says.

After Missy provides the veteran cheerleaders with a completed interest form, Darcy (Tsianina Joelson), one such Toro, asks her to do a back tuck. "Standard procedure," Darcy says. "You understand."

Except it's not standard procedure. No one else had been asked to perform that skill. "Standing back handspring back tuck, OK?" Missy asks as she pulls the chain from her pocket.

After Missy lands the back tuck, Courtney, egged on by fellow Toro Whitney (Nikki Bilderback), gives the instructions for a detailed tumbling pass. Much to everyone's surprise, Missy nails it.

"Missy is bank!" says Torrance (Kirsten Dunst).

"Uh, bankrupt," Courtney retorts. "We've already totally decided on Jamie [Whitney's little sister]."

"Sorry, Courtney, this isn't a democracy," Torrance says. "It's a cheerocracy, and I'm overruling you."

"Besides," she adds. "Missy looks like an uber d-ke."

And there it is.

But I knew better. Missy brought me comfort in high school. I wasn't a gymnast-turned-cheerleader, but I was a queer kid playing basketball and wearing a kilt every day for my school uniform. The film never explicitly says that Missy is gay, but it also never explicitly says she isn't. She is insulted multiple times by Courtney (I'll come back to the language choices), whose only criticism of Missy seems to be that she might be gay -- later in the film Courtney says that Missy is a "big, d-key loser." Missy never says that she isn't queer, and she has no romantic interest in the film (though I would argue that it should have been Torrance, but that is a different essay).

There is just enough queerness in Missy that I was able to see myself, and I latched on to her. Judging from the film's status as should-have-been-gay canon, I know I'm not the only one who felt a kinship with Missy.

Scene 2 - 22:02 mark: East Compton High School

"You're in for a rude awakening."

Those are the words Missy says to Torrance before driving them two hours from San Diego to Los Angeles. Now Torrance is standing in a gym at East Compton High School, watching this group of cheerleaders she'd never seen before perform the cheers she'd spent the past four years learning.

As Missy and Torrance walk out of the gym, a group of Clovers cheerleaders follows them, including the main characters: Isis, Lava (Shamari DeVoe), Lafred (Brandi Williams) and Jenelope (Natina Reed, who died in 2012).

"Hey!" Isis yells after them. "You guys enjoy the show?"

"Yes, were the ethnic festivities to your liking today?" Lava piles on.

This isn't the first time there's been a Rancho Carne visitor in the East Compton gym. Soon after the Clovers catch up to Missy and Torrance, it becomes clear that "Raggedy Ann," as Isis calls her, referring to the Toros' previous captain, Big Red (Lindsay Sloane), had been there before.

"Y'all been coming up for years trying to jack us for our routines," Isis says.

"And we just love seeing them on ESPN," Lava says.

Isis makes the incredible (and iconic) argument that there's no way Torrance actually thought a white girl wrote "Brr, It's Cold in Here" -- which, honestly, totally tracks since the cheer is a close approximation of steps and chants used by Alpha Phi Alpha, the first incorporated Black fraternity.

And then Isis gets to the point. "It's like every time we get some, here y'all come trying to steal it, put some blond hair on it and call it something different."

Two decades before mainstream consciousness would publicly grapple with these ideas, Isis' words reveal the heart of the film: cultural appropriation. The Toros stole from the Clovers and won with those cheers. The theft was so blatant that even Missy couldn't believe Torrance didn't know. And from East Compton's point of view, how could the Toros not know?

More likely, the Toros didn't want to know.

"There is this notion that ignorance equals absolution, and it does not," Union says today. "You are still benefiting from the labor of someone else. Your white privilege is buoyed by that. Whether you are conscious of that or not, the reality is that you have gained privileges from your whiteness. You don't get to claim ignorance."

But white privilege and appropriation aren't just the subtext of the movie. Those ideas are the subtext of the making of the movie. Bendinger, the film's writer, benefited directly from appropriation, something she openly discusses. Her mother played jazz trombone and her father made his money writing jingles, including for Popeyes, where he regularly worked with Black artists, including Aaron Neville. It was not lost on Bendinger that she had to go to a different neighborhood from the one where her father lived to patronize one of his biggest clients. And then, while in college, Bendinger actually started her career as a journalist covering hip-hop in New York as an intern for Spin magazine. "Cultural appropriation was a discussion I was exposed to for a long time," Bendinger says. "I am not perfect, and this is not to say that I am a white savior. I certainly made some missteps in early drafts."

The script, multiple sources say, was in flux all the way through filming. There was a version of the check-ripping scene where Isis actually accepts the money from Torrance. And another where the Clovers have their own car wash similar to the one the Toros hosted as a fundraiser for their choreographer. The dialogue was known to shift from day to day. Before filming, director Peyton Reed would visit Union's trailer, where Union would effectively rewrite the dialogue for the Clovers on the spot.

This moment we're in, this racial reckoning, is more about white people than it is about Black lives. We've been saying that our lives matter. We said it after Trayvon Martin. After Michael Brown. After Michelle Cusseaux. After Laquan McDonald. After Tamir Rice. After Sandra Bland. After Alton Sterling. After Philando Castile. After Breonna Taylor. After George Floyd. We said it in Selma, and in Birmingham. Nat Turner said it in Virginia, and Rosa Parks said it when she sat down on the damn bus.

Whiteness confers the privilege of being ignorant. The Clovers knew what was happening this whole time, while Torrance and the Toros had the option to not ask any questions. And even when confronted with the truth, whiteness allows them to skirt the difficulty of reckoning with their complicity. They hire a (terrible) choreographer, who developed a routine that included "spirit fingers," and get embarrassed at regionals. But because they're defending champs, they still are able to go to Florida to compete for a national title. As they design their new routine, it's still a compilation of movements designed by other people.

"They're pulling from a lot of sources; it's not undiluted creativity, which is important to note," Bendinger says. "They're putting a lot of sources together, but they're still getting their inspiration from somewhere else."

When Torrance pleads with Isis to believe her when she says she didn't know, Isis has only one thing to say. "Well now you do."

As Union says today: "We will never have peace until we have truth and transparency."

Scene 3 - 31:05 mark: The Car

Missy and Torrance are riding in a car with two of the guys on the Toros squad, Jan (Nathan West) and Les (Huntley Ritter), on their way to Missy's first football game as a Toros cheerleader. During this car ride, Missy quips about men staring at the female cheerleaders, and Jan responds that at least they don't have to defend their sexuality.

"What is your sexuality?" Missy asks.

"Well, Jan's straight," Les says. "While I'm controversial."

"Are you trying to tell me you speak f--?" Missy asks.

Les smiles. "Oh, fluently."

"And Courtney and Whitney? D-ke-adelic?"

"I don't think so," Jan says. "See, Courtney doesn't wear anything under her spankies."

"That's no excuse, Jan!" Les says.

Jan smirks. "I can't help it if my digits slip occasionally."

There's so much that happens in this scene, and almost all of it is problematic. But it's also one of my favorite scenes in the film for a couple of reasons. First, it bolsters my argument that Missy is, in fact, super queer. Second, while the scenes that tackle race display exactly how far we haven't come, this one is an example of how far we have.

This car scene, which is less than a minute long and does very little for the main plot, establishes a canonically gay character in Les. As a queer teen in Indiana, this was revolutionary for me. Huntley Ritter, who plays Les, explained in a previous interview that he was bombarded by fan mail after the film's release, much of it from gay people around the country who loved his character.

Les was loved by his teammates. When he told Missy that he was gay, it wasn't news to Jan or Torrance. And that truth makes the use of homophobic language throughout the film at once both out of place and interesting. Only two Toros cheerleaders ever use homophobic language: Courtney and Missy. In this instance, as Missy is speaking with Les, she uses these slurs not as a means of insulting him but rather very much in the vain that queer people use that language ourselves.

At every major Pride celebration, there is often a "D-ke March," which is a parade of queer women. Though "d-ke" is not a word I use to describe myself, many of my friends and mentors in the queer community use it all the time. I use the word "queer" to describe both myself and the broader LGBTQ community, even though it was a slur hurled at me as an adolescent. That interaction between Missy and Les mirrors similar ones that I've had with my friends.

"It was consciously unconscious," Bendinger says. "I did think she would feel comfortable saying that to him. Eliza [Dushku] played the ambiguity well. I don't want to ruin anybody's fantasy, but if you have that fantasy, I don't disagree with you."

When it comes to Missy's question about Courtney and Whitney, Kramer, who plays Courtney, has an answer to that question. "Courtney was bisexual," Kramer says. "I could easily see her and Missy getting together. Why not?"

This is revisionist history, of course, but it is interesting to consider that perhaps the reason Courtney is attacking Missy in this specific way is the internal shame she feels about her own desires. I get that. I remember coming home one day, and "Barbie Girl," by Aqua, was playing on the TV. I scoffed and said the song was "so gay." (As an older person and in a different context, I stand by that, actually.) I was using "gay" as a synonym for "stupid," and my dad called me out. Harshly. My parents were nothing but vocally supportive of LGBTQ people, but I still internalized being queer as a negative thing.

"In the time that we were filming, it didn't feel wrong," Kramer says. "But if presented with those same lines today, I would say that I'm not comfortable saying this. There's plenty of other ways to insult Missy. It doesn't have to be insulting to a specific demographic."

My suspicion is that if "Bring It On" were made today, this car scene wouldn't make the final cut. Homophobic language notwithstanding, the blurry lines with Jan and Courtney are cringe-worthy. What Jan says about Courtney not wearing spankies and his digits "slipping" is dubious when it comes to how we talk about consent today. Sure, Courtney flirts with Jan. At the football game after this scene, she bends over in front of him and looks right in his eyes as she wiggles and snaps her spankies. When his digits later "slip" in that scene, she makes a face and then smacks his arm and runs away. One interpretation is that Courtney is fine with what's happening and there's something "unspoken" between her and Jan, or spoken off-screen.

"Courtney wasn't offended by anything anyone said or did," Kramer says about her character. "Is it acceptable if she wouldn't have wanted [Jan's advances]? Of course not. Courtney was for it. It wasn't a violation to her."

But there's also the fact that this moment, every time, makes me suck in a breath. I am not a survivor of sexual assault, but the language in the car scene used to set up that interaction between Jan and Courtney is, um, not great.

"The intention of the scene and how it reads are not aligned," Bendinger says. "Clare Kramer does a fabulous job of making it seem like a game and that she is in on it, but it has really upset people. That moment makes me cringe. I'm sorry if anybody has been hurt from that."

Scene 4 - 129:00 mark: The End

At the end of a movie, the heroes are supposed to win. It could be forgiven if audiences thought that meant the Toros would "beat the odds" to win their sixth consecutive national championship despite having to redo their routine after realizing they'd stolen it from a school serving Black and brown teenagers in Los Angeles.

Indeed, the heroes did win, but it was the East Compton Clovers. Because they were better.

What I love about how the film ends is that not all "storybook endings" have to involve winning. In fact, earning second place, with your best performance of a routine that you designed, might be better than winning with a stolen routine. You don't have to win at all costs; sometimes the win actually costs too much.

After the trophy presentation, Isis comes over to Torrance. "I just want to say, captain to captain, I respect what you guys did out there," she says. "You guys were good."

"Thanks," Torrance says. "You were better."

Isis smirks. "We were, huh?"

That moment is amazing. Not because Isis and Torrance are friendly but because Torrance Shipman is acknowledging that her (mostly) white and wealthy team was simply not as good as East Compton. There was no dig about how the judging was rigged or some quip about affirmative action. First and second place were earned outcomes for both parties.

That feeling of validation when I watch this film is one that I've seldom felt in my life navigating white spaces. The number of rooms I've been in where people have insinuated that I didn't earn my place is considerable. And it's not a coincidence that those spaces are predominantly white. It's often couched as wanting "the best person for the job," but sometimes the best person is a Black one.

"Sometimes," Union says, "accountability is losing."