This is a movie made by enthusiasts of shameless power exercises – some of them perverse, some of them moronic, others flat out ignorant. The heroine, a ravishing beauty from the Brazilian jungles, is barely allowed to be the obligatory embodiment of sensuality; for 97 long and unending minutes, her existence plays like a target for indelible cruelty on part of screenwriters who seem obsessed with unhealthy perspectives, including shady circumstances that transpire in a sex club and vicious public displays in which she is branded with racist labels (many of which she couldn’t begin to comprehend). A movie does not necessarily advocate the attitudes of its characters, but “The Forbidden Dance” goes to such great lengths to alienate the minority while establishing commonality with the white characters that it’s unfathomable to think of any other motive. Irony is not the appropriate word to use as a consideration either, as that would imply anyone on set was smart enough to understand the meaning.
The plot: a commercialist conglomerate is hacking down all the trees in the South American rainforest, and when their shortsighted misdeeds catch the notice of a dancing Amazonian princess named Nisa (Laura Herring), she decides to counter the offense by going to Los Angeles to speak to the head of the corporation as a means of stopping their damaging initiatives – a move of fascinating complexity, especially for someone so clearly removed from the first world social graces (this despite knowing how to speak English, and how to wear scraps of clothing well while seductively moving her pelvis to the kinds of music normally heard on Latin pop radio). When her arrival doesn’t go exactly as planned, she is befriended by an immigrant maid named Carmen (Angela Moya), who is quick to set her up with a housekeeping job in Beverly Hills while she waits for the opportunity to speak to the CEO. Coincidentally, the house she becomes employed at is lived in by two wealthy but bigoted socialites and their attractive (but lazy) son Jason (Jeff James), who takes an immediate liking to Nisa and invites her out one night to – you guessed it! – go dancing.
Unfortunately, his impulse to absorb her into youthful Beverly Hills nightlife backfires in a rather dramatic way. Male friends gaze on at her arrival with almost misogynistic desire, and intercut their stares with bigoted sarcasm. Female observers are even crueler; they question Jason’s decision to bring out the “hired help” amongst the more privileged sorts, and even call her a “wetback” when a bitter ex-girlfriend gets riled up over him exchanging pelvic gyrations with her during a salsa-inspired number on the dancefloor. Sadly, because Nisa has no concept of these petty social behaviors, she has no defense mechanism against them either, and that undermines her identity further when her employers make their own very snide comments after she returns to their house (“I don’t want that woman’s perspiration all over my dress!”). Crying, alone and totally alienated from her first opportunity to make a friend in a strange land, she disappears into the cold streets and finds another job: this time at a sex club that is looking for a Latin dancer to capitalize on the new Lambada dance craze (which is basically dirty dancing with more suave choreography, and was once so risqué that it was outlawed in Latin countries).
Luckily for Nisa, she is an expert at the technique; unlucky for us, she is only ever able to use her skill in scenarios that demean her very existence, and not to any dramatic purpose. The screenplay by Roy Langston and John Platt is an offensive conceit that labors on and on with the implication that we actually find value in scenes where her innocence is exploited by a menagerie of seedy social factors, not the least of which is the racist undertone that accompanies most of the dialogue. What’s baffling is that the movie seems to detect the sourness of that sentiment at about the halfway mark, and quickly switches gears as if to do damage control; at that point, the material splits between moments of political awareness (we even get an awful textbook speech about how we as a society should be doing more to save the O-zone layer by not cutting down the rainforests) and over-the-top sexual preludes in which the Lambada serves as a form of clothed foreplay.
Not content to rest on those impulses though, “The Forbidden Dance” goes the route of including a dance competition, too. And not just any dance competition, but one in which the victors will headline a big television broadcast a la “American Bandstand.” The ex-girlfriend, needless to say, becomes so dead set against Jason and his new Latin beauty winning that she winds up conspiring with the same conglomerate that is now seeking to silence Nisa – essentially because her political warnings could harm their endeavors in the rainforest if the public is made aware of it in the mainstream. And that in turn leads to a final act so confused in conviction that one wonders what the motivation was; Nisa is kidnapped by a seedy figurehead of the corporation, forced to dance in an abandoned nightclub downtown while he tantalizes her with creepy advances, and then is abruptly snatched back by her new American beau before returning to the competition in the 11th hour to win the prestigious title, and with no secondary offense on part of the villainous figurehead. And that all-important final scene – in which Nisa finally reveals her agenda to an unsuspecting television audience – is such a glaring afterthought that no one involved even feigns shock or wonder, and all we get is a one-sentence announcement that effectively kills the remaining momentum (not that there is much to begin with).
There is an underlying enthusiasm in this genre that is not often misplaced. Even in the most deadening excursions through the recesses of dance-inspired narratives can credit an energetic display carrying their audiences through scenes without a sense of boredom. And even when the clichés are overpowering, more often than not the brains behind the scenes are at least eager to throw a little novelty in the mix to assist in stirring up the conflict. But what purpose was there to go the route utilized throughout “The Forbidden Dance?” What relevance do the political undertones have? What is the motivation? And what, pray tell, was anyone hoping to accomplish when they amplified the tension in a series of early scenes that were knee-deep in the acknowledgment that white people could be so nonsensically racist and perverted? Nisa is a likable and charming woman, far too much so to be associated with the likes of a movie this shallow and mean-spirited.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Romance (US); 1990; Rated PG-13 for strong thematic elements and some sensuality/nudity; Running Time: 97 Minutes
Laura Herring: Nisa
Jeff James: Jason
Barbra Brighton: Ashley
Miranda Garrison: Mickey
Sid Haig: Joa
Angela Moya: Carmen
Produced by Richard L. Albert, Ami Artzi, Marc S. Fisher and Menahem Golan; Directed by Greydon Clark; Written by Roy Langsdon and John Platt