In the aftermath of the verdict of the Freddie Gray case and arising out of life in the city of Baltimore comes, STEP. A documentary about an all-girl step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. The Lethal Ladies of BYLSW are on a mission to overcome the disappointment of the previous year and their journey is more than watch-worthy.
With a new coach on board and a renewed sense of purposes, the team works hard to put together and perfect meaningful routines that will take them to the top against other step teas from across the country at the Bowie State University annual showcase. At the same time, these young women are facing decisions about what comes after high school and facing what it takes to bring even bigger dreams into reality.
I won’t lie, documentaries featuring young black girls and purporting to talk about their lives and struggles usually make me uncomfortable or flat-out anger me. Not because I don’t believe the lives of black girls should be highlighted. Not because I have documentary fatigue about the hardships of being black in America. Not because the slant of the film is frequently dwelling on the negative aspects of its subjects life to fit a poorly veiled and prescribed message of the white savior behind the camera. But because, far too often the black girls are hyper-sexualized and “aged up” in the narrative and imagery. It’s rare that black girls are portrayed and treated like young girls on film. But the story being told felt like something more than the ordinary so despite my skepticism I went.
STEP almost immediately distinguishes itself by giving significant time to all aspects of life for these girls. We see them meeting with school counselors, attending class, with their families as well as with their friends and peers. The tone is open and honest, the subjects forthright and forthcoming, and the city of Baltimore reflected without a subjective glare of a crusader. Director Amanda Lipit keeps the camera ever-panning bringing the audience not only into the dance practices which serve as a motivating anchor for these young women, but into their homes. The Lethal Ladies of live, learn, and bicker like any young woman their age; their struggle with homework, parental expectations, and peer pressure are on full display. And watching their stories unfold is all the more compelling and poignant for being so very relatable.
STEP follows three very high school seniors – Tayla Solomon, Cori Grainger, and Blessin Giraldo – having highly divergent school experiences. As each navigates their final year in high school, the difficulty of balancing practice with school work, the worry about college admittance and financial aid packages, not always getting along with your teammates, and all the rest of life’s curve balls (if waking up to no lights, no food in the refrigerator, and constantly worrying if you’ll be able to keep it together enough to make it to school the next day can be considered “just” curve balls) as each looks forward to the future and what they hope it holds for them.
STEP also highlights an aspect of black life frequently missing from documentaries, black households in America. In addition to showing dedicated teachers, zealous and involved school counselors, this film features parents, for good and ill, being present. These are recognizable family structures with the common give and take of learning to let go of a growing child and keep a firm hand because she is still a child. It was refreshing to see black families that are real, multi-faceted and demonstrably complicated on-screen. Far too often, the absent parent trope is the subliminal messaging being emphasized when a documentary turn its eye on the black community.
But STEP isn’t your typical “feel good” documentary about the joys of dance and the thrill of competition – even though that is the main story anchor. It’s also not the oft singled out tale of woe and lamentation of blackness in the “inner city.” It’s a real look behind the doors of an all-girls charter high school hustling to see its graduates continue on to college. It’s an unvarnished look at living and working in a city far too many have given themselves permission to forget. There’s joy, pain, happiness, success and failure. It’s a raw and gritty journey where the audience stands witness – with hope – to the struggle of working to stay on track and succeed despite one’s circumstances and coming to the realization that success sometimes comes because of them.
STEP’s strengths more than outweigh its weakness (I would’ve like to know more about the two key administrators featured, the school as a whole, as well as a broader look at the feel of Baltimore during this time period) in the making it a highly enjoyable, and ultimately uplifting watch. The film released in select theaters in San Diego (and around the country) on August 11th. It may take you a little out of your way to get to a theater where it’s playing but it’s an interesting true-story that more than worth the trip.
Grade: A –