There are currently five movies that fall under the Bring It On cheer pyramid (or, cheer-amid). How that number came to be, the world may never truly know, but it is the case. To those who grew up with the original—which premiered 15 years ago this week, because we’re all dying slowly—it might come as a shock that there are whole generations that have grown up with these four additional Bring It On films. They don’t feature any of the original cast (unless you count spirit fingers and the spirit stick in movies three and four, respectively); instead, going with a revolving door of leads, with blonde girl #1 vs. blonde girl number #2; Hayden Panettiere vs. Solange vs. blonde girl #3; Ashley Benson vs. blonde girl #4; and Christina Milian vs. brunette girl #1. If all of those sound like downgrades from Kirsten Dunst and Gabrielle Union (and the rest of that fantastic original cast), that’s because they are. 

Until just recently, I had gone 11 years without seeing a Bring It On “sequel;” back in the age of movie rentals, my family had made an ill-advised choice to watch Bring It On Again. Even as a teenager, it was difficult to see any good qualities in the movie. But that was 11 years ago, and people’s perspective can change in that time. Plus, the only things I knew about the other sequels were that Rihanna makes a guest appearance and one of them just plagiarizes the plot of West Side Story. These were fresh, mature eyes watching these movies.

Of course, I started it all with a rewatch of Bring It On, a movie I can probably quote line by line but also the movie that informs all of this film franchise. Every movie after the original even opens with a nightmare sequence and closes with a group musical number, as if those were the two things that defined the original Bring It On. Thinkpieces upon thinkpieces have been written about Bring It On, with regards to race, cultural appropriation, homophobia—you name it. In fact, the oral history of the film just confirmed that all of the “missing” Clovers scenes from the movie trailer were made specifically for the trailer, in order to appeal to an urban demographic. It was by no means a pillar of virtue or an aspirational film, but even 15 years later, it’s still just so self-assured and smart, from the writing to the casting to the execution.

After now watching the subsequent four movies in this franchise, I wish I could say even a little bit of the same about them.

Bring It On Again

Eleven years ago, my problems with Bring It On Again were many: It was boring and small-scale (the final battle was an intercollegiate cheer-off), the protagonist was wishy-washy and devoid of personality, there were too many white people (and people in general) saying “the bomb-diggity.” Lack of original cast aside, the entire plot itself was more a cheerleading Revenge of the Nerds than Bring It On. Watching Bring It On Again in 2015, none of that was different—in fact, it was even worse. The faults of the movie weren’t imagined or a teenage overblown reaction: It was simply not good, even as its own film independent of a prior film. I was also brought to the unfortunate realization that there was barely any lighting budget for the movie, in addition to a nonexistent music budget. As for self-assuredness and smartness, the college mascot in Again was the Stingers, because the cheerleaders and jocks were all uber WASPs; it was the one bit of cleverness that managed to sneak into the script and on to the screen.

That wishy-washy, devoid of personality protagonist really highlighted a major problem the Bring It On sequels would continue to fail to realize about the original: Torrance Shipman (and everyone in that film) was a character, not a caricature. Whittier Smith (of course using a California city name to try to bridge the sequels) had a belly button ring. She gave into peer pressure easily—which led to her saying “the bomb-diggity” three times in one sentence—and supposedly wanted to cheer professionally, despite not really being shown to excel at it. That was literally all there was to get about the character in 90 minutes. I was confused how anyone could miss the mark so much, as it truly was 90 minutes of taking everything that worked in the first movie and doing the opposite of it. I was especially confused why there were so many urine jokes four minutes into the movie, but as I watched it all, stone-faced, I realized none of my questions would be answered.

Unexpectedly, there was a shining light in the acting, in Bethany Joy Lenz’s (credited then as Joie Lenz) mean girl Marni. She felt like she was transplanted out of a whole other movie, a better one though not by much. She was somehow making her bits work, which was all that anyone could really ask from in this slog of a movie. It was her scenes that made me ask the most important question of all these viewings: “Will I develop Stockholm Syndrome watching all of these?”

Bring It On: All Or Nothing

Bring It On: All Or Nothing had me thinking I just might. Prior to ever seeing it (but knowing the synopsis), All Or Nothing was the Bring It On sequel I used to refer to as Bring It On meets a race war. Its original title was apparently Bring It On: Yet Again, but I suppose that would have been a too revealing title for the money-grubbing purposes of these films. Hayden Panettiere (whose name was of course misspelled in the end credits) played privileged white girl Britney, whose life was flipped when she had to move from Pacific Vista to Crenshaw Heights (where Solange’s Camille was the cheer captain of the high school) for flimsy reasons. With Wikipedia as my companion throughout these viewing endeavors, I was happy to see that links to “tokenism” and “culture shock” found their ways into the synopsis. Panettiere’s Britney even uttered the line, “Some of my best friends used to live next door to black people” at a point during the movie, and yet it didn’t end right there with a full-on beatdown. After the boring Bring It On Again, watching this was like experiencing a complete 180—gone was the slow pace (because of all of the twerking and krumping), lack of lighting, and lack of actual music any human being would listen to. In fact, the soundtrack to this movie was like 2006 personified, with three Gwen Stefani tracks and Avril Lavigne’s “My Happy Ending” playing twice, for emotional effect. I assumed its purpose was to distract from the dialogue, which reached its peak early on with a line from Britney’s cheating boyfriend, Brad (played by Jake McDorman of Greek and CBS’ Limitless fame):

“You sound like such a virgin... I’m a quarterback. People expect me to score.”

It was at that moment—about five minutes into the film—I, as a fan of Greek, wondered if Jake McDorman really does deserve more than projects like The Craigslist Killer and, well, this. This movie was pre-Greek, but had I seen this at the time it came out, I would not have been so taken by Evan Chambers at any point in that series. It’s funny how life’s choices work out.

Eventually, Rihanna circa “Pon de Replay” saved the day, to make this film all about tolerance. If that sounds like jumping from point A to point B, that’s because this movie jumped from point A to B to Q to D in 94 minutes (yes, they were getting longer). In my Bring It On-centric Stockholm Syndrome, the longer the movie went, the more apparent it became that, despite the original "Yet Again" subtitle, this movie actually tried to be something more in a way Again had not. In fact, the movie actually suffered from being too ambitious, which is something that cannot be said for the rest of these sequels. There was a squandered plot about Camille being afraid to succeed, and any chance of character development for the Crenshaw characters that snuck in was immediately followed by sex jokes and slut shaming over on the Pacific Vista side of things. This was also the beginning of the Bring It On series becoming a dance movie franchise instead of a cheerleading one, and that actually meant a different format from the original film. The final competition basically devolved into the end of You Got Served, and if you’re trying to figure out how that applies to cheerleading, you’ll be racking your brain forever. I watched all of these movies, and I’m still not 100% positive any of it was real.

Bring It On: Fight to the Finish

Skipping ahead for a moment, I need to address the fact that the fifth (and final, supposedly) installment of these movies, Bring It On: Fight to the Finish, is basically a reverse version of All Or Nothing. It featured whatever the “comedic” opposite of gentrification is, Christina Milian doing a put upon Cuban-American accent (when she herself is Cuban-American), a character named Victor, whose acting style of constantly vibrating made it seem as though he thought if he ever stopped moving like a shark, he would die, and “East LA” (the entire area) being cast in the obnoxious yellow tint reserved for Mexico and South America in television and film. And because these movies had become fuel and fire for stereotypes and racism galore, the most racist character in the entire movie was the villain’s black sidekicks. It was legitimately terrifying, and that’s why I recorded every line she uttered to or about Christina Milian and her East LA friends:

  • “Save the urban drama for later.”
  • “Hold up, jalapeno.” 
  • “Not this mariachi band.”
  • “The United Nations is boring me.”
  • “Tila Tequila and her Sea Lions…” (This is because tequila is Mexican. She explains this.)
  • “It’s a competition, not a siesta.”
  • “Barrio fabulous”

Sadly, there was no Rihanna to save the day. The closest we got here was Giuliana Rancic, who filmed scenes for the final showdown (which was full of lots of camera tricks to make the routines look passable) in what appeared to be an isolated box, far away from anyone actually in the movie. From Rihanna to Giuliana Rancic—think about that for a moment. Of course, if anyone of Rihanna’s level had been in that final movie, that wouldn’t have allowed Christina Milian to perform an entire music video over the end credits. I tried to unpack it all, so I went to IMDB for answers. There were no answers, because these movies are forever shrouded in mystery. But I was left with one highlight, this message board topic:

“Christina Milian is an A-list artist, why is she doing d-list movies?”

That, I will cherish forever, even when they lock me up for obsessing over the whys and hows of the Bring It On film franchise.

Bring It On: In It to Win It

Now for the reason I skipped from three to five: Four was Bring It On: In It To Win It, better known as “the Westside Story” one. Ashley Benson and Michael Copon starred as representatives for their respective cheer squads, the West Coast Sharks and the East Coast Sharks. Watching this was seriously like watching From Justin To Kelly… but with cheerleading. If there wasn’t an intricate, impromptu cheer-off every five minutes, there wasn’t a movie going on. If the black best friend wasn’t saying “hell to the yeah” every 10 minutes (and rolling her neck, so, so much), she wasn’t black—proven by one of the final scenes, where she confessed to being an “oreo” who put up the hood rat front to get her team’s “respect.” I was ready to shut it all off right there, especially as the goth cheerleader (remember, there are only caricatures) replied to the revelation with “You’re whiter than me.” This film was a fever dream, one where the fever never ended. 

There was a cheer rumble in this godforsaken piece of “entertainment” because of West Side Story. And the kicker? Despite the West Side Story aspect, because none of these Bring It On films would be so bold as to just kill off someone—anyone—or even put me out of my misery with a The Ring type situation, halfway through the movie, the Sharks and Jets team up to take up a never-developed competing team, the Flamingos. If that makes as little sense to you as it did to me, that’s probably because you have a basic comprehension of storytelling. But in a movie that served as a 90 minute (back in the sweet spot) ad for Universal Studios and Resort in Orlando, it was as expected as the cold love story was.

My fury of Jesse Bradford’s career not becoming one of A-list glory increased tenfold with every sequel’s bland love interest. Michael Copon, as pretty as his abs are, has absolutely no charisma or swagger, despite carrying himself like a guy who has charisma or swagger. He sadly can’t fake it, because he is a terrible actor (which is symptomatic of the entire cast of In It To Win It). Again had Richard Lee Jackson looking like an evil timeline version of his brother (Nashville’s Jonathan Jackson), and by Fight to the Finish, it seemed like the casting calls had extended to Grow-a-Guy packages, Beige Edition. Despite being a male cheerleader, the love interest in All or Nothing introduced the term “queerleaders” for such a category; and that was at least better than the gay male cheerleader in In It To Win It who was actually a straight pervert who wanted to watch girls dress in front of him.

If we’re playing the ranking game at home, it goes as follows: original recipe Bring It On, All Or Nothing, Fight to the Finish, Again, then In It To Win It. There’s a wide margin between Bring It On and Bring It On: All Or Nothing and then an even wider margin between the rest of them.

What did I learn from putting myself through this? It was bizarre to realize that the Bring It On films are the most racially charged sports films in history—in a world of Remember The Titans—but watching them all back-to-back, it’s true. These are the films that took the “cheer” puns from the first movie and bastardized them to create something like “illegal cheer-migrants” (Fight To the Finish, of course). They haven’t tried to say anything poignant about the subject—or any subject—since the first, and that’s why the first actually has staying power. Compared to the sequels, there are at least a hundred reasons why the original has staying power. Happy anniversary, Bring It On. May your “bomb-diggity” legacy never be tarnished by films that simply share your namesake.