Step is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Early in Step, Amanda Lipitz's insightful and inspiring documentary, the new step-dance coach at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, Gari McIntyre, introduces herself to her students by sharing two facts about her own background: she grew up on the same street as Freddie Gray, and she represents the first generation of her family to go to college.
In the eyes of Gari's students we can see recognition and aspiration, for that one sentence encapsulates both the tunnel and the light of their world. They grew up in the disenfranchised neighborhoods of Baltimore, where Gray's 2015 death at the hands of police officers sparked massive protests and riots just as filming on Step was getting underway. And the BLSYW Charter School was founded in 2009 with one goal: to ensure that every one of its low-income students would be accepted into college. "College," the school's college counselor tells one student, "is what's going to get you out of Baltimore."
Step—the feature debut of Tony-winning Broadway producer and Baltimore native Lipitz—is the chronicle of the last year of enrollment for three very different members of the school's first graduating class, all teammates on the school's competitive step-dance team, the "Lethal Ladies" of BLSYW. And it's also a surprisingly joyous portrait of a community of adults—teachers and parents—fighting tooth and nail to give these girls some self-worth, and some hope, and a genuine chance to rise in a society designed to keep them down.
Cori is the straight-A student, a self-described introvert with her sights set on a full scholarship to a good school: she knows she'll get in somewhere, but she doesn't want to burden herself or her struggling family with any debt. (She touchingly describes her mother as "a magic wand in human form," but the magic isn't always enough to keep the electricity on in Cori's home, or to put food on the table for Cori's six brothers and sisters.) Tayla is the only child of single-mother Maisha. A corrections officer by profession, a den mother by nature, and an overly enthusiastic step groupie, Maisha frequently embarrasses her slyly sarcastic daughter, but she is fiercely resolute about making sure Tayla stays on the right path. ("Boys have cooties," she says flatly, when Tayla is spending more time dating than on her studies.)
And then there's Blessin, one of the original founders of the school's step team. A radiant beauty who knows she's supposed to be a star—there's a poster of Marilyn Monroe in her bedroom, and a copy of Bob Fosse's biography on the shelf next to her Bible—Blessin is struggling with a 1.1 grade point average and a tendency to skip school when she's pissed off (which is often). (Her mother suffers from depression and anger issues, and admits that her daughter has inherited both traits from her.) Blessin gets the lion's share of the screen-time in Step, in part because the camera loves her—she does seem like a future star—and in part because, despite her misleading poise and confidence, she is the one of the film's three subjects most in danger of being pulled under. (In one of the film's most powerful scenes, BLSYW's tenacious college advisor, Paula Dofat, makes an admittedly unprofessional, tear-stained plea for Blessin to be accepted to a transitional college program. "If we don't come together," she says, "this girl is not going to make it." Throughout Step, in fact, we see a community of adults who are personally, passionately invested in the success of these young women, because they know all too well the pervasive forces working against them.)
Step is a feel-good, three-hankie picture, with all the expected rhythms and beats of a manufactured teen sports drama: there's a big step competition looming at the end of the film, the last opportunity for the seniors members of the Lethal Ladies to score a "W." But the stakes are different than they are in fictional films like Stomp the Yard, or even in documentaries like Hoop Dreams: there's no life-changing prize for winning the competition, and step-dancing—unlike basketball—is not anyone's ticket out of poverty. (College is the ticket, and graduation is the real goal towards which the film and the girls are working.) The Step Team is something else, less tangible but no less important: it's a precious source of fun, an exercise in teamwork and discipline, and—in a society that devalues the bodies and worth of young black women—a fierce, unabashed, joyous celebration of communal spirit and personal pride. It's an empowering, infectious expression of the defiant hope that thrives in places where hope is hard to come by.
Though it is never mentioned in the film, director Lipitz and her mother were instrumental in the founding of BLSYW, and so there is arguably a slightly phony, self-congratulatory air about Step. But it works—the film is fun, funny, and thrillingly inspirational—and the portrait it paints is one of individuals and a community that deserve to be congratulated. We have seen the bleak and hopeless side of disenfranchised black communities time and time again. (Popular perception of Baltimore's neglected neighborhoods is shaped by shows like The Wire, and by the inarticulate, jutifiable rage of the 2015 riots.) But there are other stories that deserve to be told about these communities. Step provides a rare and necessary celebration of the love, beauty, and improbably resilient optimism that not only exists in these circumstances, but is all that enables anyone to survive and rise above them.