There are so few films that can truly send me through a range of emotions in a short amount of time. That must be the reason why Step won the special jury award for inspirational filmmaking at Sundance this year. I laughed, cried, and jumped for joy because this is a film I can relate to. I took step briefly in high school. Stepping has been an important activity in the black community for as long as I can remember. But don't get it twisted, this documentary is as much about the art of stepping as it is about the dynamics of the mini society of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. While growing into young adults, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon come to terms with poverty, blackness and womanhood. Watch as they multitask between doing homework, finishing senior year, dealing with boy trouble and recovering from the fallout of the Baltimore riots.
That's a lot for a young girl to bear. However, they do have a temporary outlet, and that's the Lethal Ladies step team. These girls deal with all of life's challenges and frustrations through step dance. But it doesn't come for free. Like many extracurricular activities at school, you have to maintain a certain grade point average (GPA) to continue participating. New step coach Gari McIntyre instills integrity and the will to win in these girls. They need all the help they can get if they plan to win the Bowie state step competition, and graduate on time, and get accepted into a good college. Gari firmly reminds them that they can't afford to get complacent because things can change at any moment. Cori is the first to see how quickly things can go down hill.
The 16-year old senior lives with her mother, stepfather and five siblings. Her stepfather lost his job, and the lights and electricity were turned off in the home. Cori mentions how happiness is cyclical and just as things begin to feel stable, it all comes crashing down. This is why Cori strives for greatness. She wants to be class 2016's valedictorian and apply to Johns Hopkins University. The only issue is tuition. According to the website, Johns Hopkins University is $70,000 a year, which is way out of her parent's income bracket and she isn't interested in student loans. Her goal is to achieve a scholarship that will allow her a full ride through college for all four years. In the meantime, Cori continues with the step team in hopes of finding relief from the stresses of everyday life as black girl in Baltimore.
The city has its ups and downs, but as the group stands in front of the public memorial for Baltimore victim of police violence Freddie Gray, Blessin has an epiphany that her neighborhood is poisonous. She wants out, and college is the only way that will happen for her. Even the school guidance counselor, Ms. Paula Dofat, wants Blessin to further her education away from Baltimore.
"If she (Blessin) doesn't get into this program, she's not going to make it.”
This is what Dofat reiterates to college recruiters who are there to interview Blessin. The purpose is to see if she is a good fit for a specialized program that allows students with a low-grade point average a chance to work on improving their scores. Blessin needs this especially because she's been on academic probation several times and is often distracted. But as captain of the Lethal Ladies step team, she knows she has to pull it together. Her livelihood and the team depend on it.
Then there Tayla, the only child in a single parent household with her mother who works as a correctional officer in a prison facility. Mama Tayla holds high expectations for her daughter and leads with a firm hand. When Tayla’s grades bomb because of several distractions (mainly boys), her mother is there put her back on the right track. I'm sure as a correctional officer she knows the streets of Baltimore better than anyone. She knows what’s waiting on the streets for Tayla if she doesn't succeed.
It takes a village to raise a child, and that's what's so refreshing about Step. Parents, teachers, counselors and coaches are all involved in the betterment of Cori, Blessin, Tayla and the rest of the Lethal Ladies. But they deserve some credit, as well. If it were not for the strong bonds of sisterhood between these girls, they wouldn’t have gotten far. Their superhuman levels of resilience have made them self -aware, and in a way, more grown up than the average kid who doesn't have to worry about police brutality or rioting. They know as black young women they must work twice as hard to gain visibility and respect. In Baltimore, it's best to remain hyper-vigilant to protect themselves, because they can end up dead like Freddie Gray at any moment.
Despite that, Step creates a light at the end of the tunnel. In a racially divided city, rife with violence, and recovering from a riot, there are people there who care about the next generation of youth. Director Amanda Lipitz films the journey of these girls in such a way where you feel their struggles and their triumph. They take it all in stride, though - that's what real-life wonder women do. To me, this is what documentary filmmaking is all about. Bringing others into the lives of Black girls who just need a little motivation for success is something not too often explored. Rest assured audience members will be thinking about Step long after it's over. Their thirst for winning and furthering their education leaps off of the screen and into your heart.