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HBO presents
Dancing in September (2001)

"Tommy, why can't we be funny and honest?"
- Malik (Mel Jackson)

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: October 12, 2001

Stars: Isiah Washington, Nicole Ari Parker, Vicellous Reon Shannon
Other Stars: Malinda Williams, Jay Underwood, Mel Jackson, Jenifer Lewis
Director: Reggie Rock Bythewood

Manufacturer: Wamo
MPAA Rating: R for some language and violence
Run Time: 01h:45m:58s
Release Date: August 14, 2001
UPC: 026359177828
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+BB- C-

DVD Review

Network television is a frustrating entity filled with both endless promise and dull, cookie-cutter disasters. Compelling dramas like Homicide: Life on the Street, The X-Files, and The West Wing present complex human relationships and tension by building up characters and story lines in a manner impossible in feature films. Original comedies ranging from The Simpsons to Seinfeld showcase remarkable creativity to generate hilarious results. Unfortunately, these shows are rare exceptions within the predictable conventions of network programming. Executives consistently underestimate their audience and rely essentially on ratings to gauge success. This sad trend is especially prevalent in the African-American market, where comedies of the lowest level dominate the schedules.

Dancing in September chronicles the fictional story of George Washington (Isiah Washington) and Tomasina "Tommy" Crawford (Nicole Ari Parker), an executive and writer at WPX, a startup network trying to make waves in the television market. In a strategy reminiscent of real-life's WB or UPN, they believe that counter-programming is essential in fighting their established competitors for ratings. Aided by the urgings of George, they decide to target the untapped African-American market. Tommy pitches the concept of Just Usˇa comedy that would not pander to the audience with stupid butt jokes and bad catchphrases. Amazingly, this inventive sitcom generates tremendous popularity and becomes a surprise success. Unfortunately, this leads to inflated egos and sad compromises that destroy the original concept and cause tragic consequences.

Writer and first-time director Reggie Rock Bythewood has penned episodes for A Different World and New York Undercover, and his insights into the television world add a important level of realism to the story. Although disheartening, the one-sided script meetings portrayed in the story correspond with the possible reasons for many sitcom clunkers still on the air today. Early in the story, Tommy questions ignorant comments spoken by the main character of Winston and Sallyˇa popular African-American comedy. This leads to her immediate dismissal from the staff. Bythewood pulls no punches in presenting the disturbing motives utilized for choosing whether an idea becomes a series. Luckily, this material also provides opportunities for humor in ridiculing the television industry. Before backing Tommy's concept, George sits through a series of absurd ideas, including Da Homeymooners. One of the other shows accepted is Housing Authorityˇa violent, irresponsible cop show with an awful hip-hop theme song. Luckily, I cannot think of any shows currently running that fall this low, but the difference isn't immense.

This film succeeds due to interesting characters who transcend the usual caricatures and draw you into the story. Nicole Ari Parker (Boogie Nights, Remember the Titans) provides a moral centerpiece and brings considerable emotion to her role. Tommy is an intelligent, outspoken woman who expects more from the television medium. She immediately connects with Georgeˇan ambitious executive trying to move up in the world without losing his convictions. Their bond helps to carry the first half, then the focus swifts more to James (Vicellous Reon Shannon of The Hurricane), the young star of Just Us. Discovered by Tommy outside the studio selling candy to support his baby, James must deal with the wonders and pratfalls of fame. Shannon brings considerable presence to the role and makes us care about his plight.

Spike Lee covered similar territory in Bamboozledˇhis effective satire about the dire state of African-Americans in the television industry. However, he took a more outlandish approach to the subject designed to ridicule the problems in our society. Dancing in September keeps the events more realistic and low-key with an emphasis on the human relationships of the central characters. Bythewood constructs a tale that does not appear farfetched within the nature of television today. The only drawback is the overplayed conclusion, which appears too contrived in relation to the rest of the story. Tommy's final speech reveals important emotions within her character, but the setting seems false and lessens the effect of the scene. Regardless of the stumbles in the finale, this movie offers plenty of insights into the people and workings of network television.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Dancing in September contains a decent 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that offers impressive colors and a sharp picture. While Tommy and George dance the night away at a local club, the glittery lights shine brightly and carry the energy of the scene. The main drawback of this transfer is a significant amount of minor glitches that appear intermittently and especially early in the film. There's also a light level of grain that appears in a few scenes and lessens the quality of the overall presentation. Overall, this is a solid transfer, but it lacks the precise visuals and complete lack of blemishes inherent in the best releases.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
PCMEnglish, Spanishyes

Audio Transfer Review: This disc offers a surprisingly mediocre 2.0-channel stereo transfer that includes few noteworthy audio moments. The dialogue remains fairly quiet, and it lacks the punch that would aid the emotional scenes. Several times, I was forced to raise the volume significantly to completely hear the conversations between the central characters. This story does offer a nice soundtrack, but its impact is slightly lessened due to the lack of complexity in this audio transfer. The track is acceptable, but it falls well short of the expected quality of most HBO discs.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Although they often lack much in terms of supplements, HBO releases almost always contain impressive cast and crew sections. This disc is no exception, with informative entries included for the three main stars and writer/director Reggie Rock Bythewood. Each biography covers several pages of career background and contains a selected filmography list. The main drawback of this list is the lack of character names or the year of each film, which would have improved it. However, it does provide a nice overview of the up-and-coming actors. Unfortunately, this section is the only extra feature on this release.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Dancing in September relates a compassionate story about the difficulties in finding a true African-American voice in the network television industry. It works mainly due to impressive performances from Isiah Washington, Nicole Ari Parker, and Vicellous Reon Shannon, who add considerable weight to their roles. While lessened by a predictable conclusion, this film still provides plenty of insight into the business without sacrificing character development in the process.


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