Will the "Dirty Dancing" Remake Have the Great Politics of the Original?

There’s a lot of hysteria surrounding the announcement that Kenny Ortega, director of such notable projects as the High School Musical movies, is going to helm a remake of Dirty Dancing. There are complaints that you can’t mess with perfection (you can’t), or that you can’t replace Patrick Swayze (also true). But for me, the biggest problem is that any remake is likely to miss that the point of the movie isn’t the core romance — it’s about politics.

Irin Carmon, in what remains my favorite essay about the original movie and one of my favorite pieces of nostalgia criticism ever, explains that the greatness of the movie is in part that Baby “Can dance with the owner’s son and thaw a little when she learns he’s going freedom riding with the bus boys, then see how he treats Johnny. She can find out that the supposed prize, Yale Medical school and out-WASPing-the-WASPs Robbie, is also an Ayn Rand-reading cad whose life philosophy is, ‘Some people count, some people don’t.’ She sees this [and what happens when abortion isn't readily available], and she isn’t cowed, even if she has moments of doubt.”

Anyone who think Johnny and Baby’s affair is really going to last beyond the summer, or even optimistically, beyond her first of college, is fooling themselves, high on hormones and the giddiness of that final lift. And that’s part of what makes it a great romance — both Baby and Johnny are fully immersed it in, passionate without concern for the final shape of it. There’s no romantic comedy nagging about putting a ring on it, or need to put Jennifer Grey through a makeover session, to tear her down before she can be built back up. Baby is a great but very human person, who grows into her adult greatness through an affair, through breaking the law to help someone secure an illegal abortion with serious consequences, through spending her summer working (even if her work is a kind of play) rather than just relaxing. Johnny is the mirror in which Baby comes to see herself as a whole person. It matters that her vision of herself and her clarity about it last, not that she and Johnny get married.

Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights is not a good movie, exactly, and it counts as one of a number of odd decisions that Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal made with their careers after Y tu mamá también. And even if it’s not entirely successful at engaging with them, the show has clear and defined politics. Instead of class in the Catskills, it’s capitalist imperialism in Cuba that’s supposed to keep the two characters apart. The Cuban character, of course, isn’t actually a revolutionary — he’s just related to one — just as the American may have all her pretty dresses paid for by her businessman father, but that doesn’t mean she’s signed on to big business’s agenda in Cuba. Interestingly, the movie’s drawn from a much more political script which was commissioned, killed, and repurposed years later to fit the Dirty Dancing format, which may explain why it has a coherent, if weak, political perspective. It would be interesting to see what the original movie would have been like, or what would have happened if the story involved the heroine developing not just pro-choice and good class politics, but politically and economically radical ones.

I’ll be curious to see if they even try to concoct a political scenario for the remake. But if they do, I hope someone remembers that this isn’t a story where Romeo and Juliet defy their stupid family feud because the other person is just too awesome to resist. This is a story where the Montagues and the Capulets have really and substantive differences, and Juliet sides with the Capulets on substance, not on hormones.


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