A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next in the series, a look at how 2015’s Magic Mike XXL inspired one of our writers to pursue his American dream.
I have always had a special appreciation for the practice of dancing. Even though I don’t have any skill with the practice, I found that it’s my favorite physical exercise to watch, whether viewed and appreciated as a competitive sport or as artistic expression. Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul,” which resonates with me. Taken from a New York Times interview from 1985, the sentiment promotes the idea that dance is an art form and a means of expression. The physicality and motions of dance aren’t just a visual sensation, but also a set of artistically-driven movements dictated by spirit and loaded with infinite meaning. My appreciation for dance is quite evident in my love for 2015’s under-appreciated gem, Gregory Jacobs’ Magic Mike XXL, which I read as an unlikely representation of the American dream and the expression of the soul of the America that I would like to call my home.
As an 18-year-old teenager living in the Philippines, I still carry a very idealistic view of America. As a Filipino citizen, I have very little knowledge of American policy. Essentially the whole of my understanding of American society, its structure and issues surrounding it, comes from social media and the news. As a history buff, I only see America as the imperfect Big Brother it has been to the Philippines throughout my country’s history. America may not be perfect, but it sure is generally better along than the Philippines is. As a film enthusiast in my country, America is the dream. Hollywood, specifically, is the perfect example of my American dream. It’s where I hope to find fulfillment in my work and the opportunity to hone my abilities in order to achieve something greater.
Magic Mike XXL personifies that American dream.
The film begins with Mike Lane as a hardworking CEO running the small business he put up at the end of Steven Soderbergh’s first Magic Mike film. As the film follows Mike and his friends on their adventure, Mike repeatedly states that he worked hard to get to where he is, and that, at one point, he had it all: “the house, the dog, and Downton Abbey on the weekends.” But as the opening of the film reveals, it wasn’t enough to make his girlfriend commit to an entire life with him.
We meet Mike with everything happening to him, but the first time Mike has to make a choice is when he is approached by his former stripper pals to be a part of their last performance at a stripper convention. Mike initially declines, but after the film’s first dance sequence (aka the best Step Up dance sequence), where Mike dances to Pony (his signature song from the first film), he is immediately inspired to join his friends Big Dick Richie, fro-yo maker Tito, lover Ken, and painter Tarzan, on a road trip to inner victory and reclaiming the fulfillment he found in dancing and expression.
Conflicts like this occur often throughout Magic Mike XXL, and they’re usually resolved by the character finding the power to overcome it through dance. Arguably the funniest scene in the film is when Mike and the boys force Richie to strip dance at a convenience store, as a result of Richie’s insecurity and lack of self-confidence, which is truly ironic for a character named Big Dick Richie with the looks of Joe Manganiello. Richie dances all-out to Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way and gains the confidence he needs to disregard his fireman performance, try out a new piece at the convention, and satisfy a sexual partner, something he hadn’t been able to do for months. Similarly, Mike’s conflicts with Rome and Ken are respectively resolved when Mike dances to restore Rome’s trust in him and Ken expresses all of his feelings towards Mike leaving the team in the first film.
Quick resolutions to rising conflicts is a recurring aspect of Magic Mike XXL and is no doubt attributed to editor Steven Soderbergh, who is a master at letting narrative give deeper insight into character and theme rather than solely relaying the plot. Just look at his Ocean’s trilogy, if you doubt that statement. Soderbergh understands that the film’s theme must be evident in the film’s approach also, which is why Magic Mike XXL doesn’t prolong conflicts that threaten to tear the group apart or feature an antagonist that threatens their shot at “winning”.
This is essentially a road trip movie of healing, friendship, and finding inner victory through true expression. The stakes aren’t whether they would win at the stripper convention – it’s whether or not a sincere expression of their souls, through stripping, would result in a satisfying, triumphant last performance. In the end, Mike gets to showcase his love for dance, the unrestrained freedom to please, and cookies; Ken got to sing and heal; Tito got to show off his skills with dessert; Tarzan got to express through painting instead of dancing; and Big Dick Richie proved he was more than just a fireman.
The American dream, in any historical iteration, promotes the idea that America provides an equal opportunity for all to achieve their dreams and find riches, a promise that we are told is offered to anyone from any social class. Magic Mike XXL promotes that this is the soul and foundation of America, and celebrates this through honest dancing and male strippers.
Even though I myself don’t have any skill with stripping, Magic Mike XXL‘s representation of dancing makes my special appreciation for the practice grow even more. As a foreigner to the United States and as a student who wants to get into filmmaking, I want to believe that the United States of America celebrates the idea that people can find achievement and success through art and expression, and Magic Mike XXL convinces me that this is the case.
Beyond that, the film also depicts its ideals of America as the place that’s inclusive to everybody, and as a foreigner to the country, that makes me hopeful and excited. This depiction of America first dawned on me, as it did most others, in the breathtakingly beautiful sequence at “Rome’s Palace” at the midpoint of the film.
They had three performances, notably one by tWitch and one by Donald Glover, at this Southern strip club that are just awe-inspiring. The scene doesn’t make use of an overweight woman for comedic effect; it flows like it would have with a woman with any other body type. From this scene, I realized that at no point in the film is a person’s appearance ever scrutinized. Secondly, Glover’s musical performance and speech that follows the sequence highlighted the film’s celebratory approach towards women in particular. Glover emphasizes the beauty of female expression and how important it is for men to not get in the way of it. Additionally, a few reviews and video essays have already discussed how the lighting at Rome’s Palace elegantly captures all people of color under one light (actually two lights: red and blue) and just celebrates the lack of difference.
This sequence that comes halfway through the movie adds a new sense of righteousness and purpose to the boys’ road trip to victory. Not only are they competing to fulfill their individual goals and aspirations, but they’re also representing the America that is all-inclusive, non-discriminatory, and just generally celebratory of all its citizens. This could be seen in a small dose when the boys visit Tito’s girlfriend, run into a group of women older than they, and make them accept that they’re not old enough to be loved and appreciated. This could also be seen in a bigger dose in the breathtaking finale of the film, where the film takes all the boys’ passions and turn it into an energy that pleases the entire auditorium and all audiences (both within the film and out of the film).
Following the boys’ victorious performance, the film leaves the audience with a montage that showcases the triumphant group celebrating the Fourth of July with DJ Khaled’s All I Do Is Win playing in the background. And though all of these performers have accepted a compromised version of where they thought they might have expected to end up at the start of the first and second films, this conclusion certainly feels like a victory. This is the America I hope to call home someday – the America that promotes inclusion, the America that champions those who are willing to take the risk to sincerely express themselves. I may be far from America, but the American dream still burns fiercely within me. And I have certainly had my doubts about the cost and the risks I’d be making by pursuing a dream abroad. I’m scared that my drive to build from the ground up won’t be enough, and I’m scared that the industry might not need my voice. Like Mike, I just need someone to persuade me that it’s not a horrible idea. However, even if it is a horrible idea (and the dispirited cloud hanging over 2017’s America might make that seem all the more likely), Magic Mike XXL depicts America as the place where people are granted the opportunity to express themselves, so I’m certainly not going to let insecurity or lack of self-confidence prevent me from trying.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures