"STEP" Reminds Us of the Black Girls Who Aren't Carefree
“Kim Kardashian is not great she’s pretty.” The lack of irony about this statement coming from a young black girl in Baltimore with a Marilyn Monroe poster on her bedroom wall is just one the many impactful moments in Amanda Lipitz's “STEP.”
The documentary, which took home a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, “documents the senior year of a girls’ high-school step dance team against the background of inner-city Baltimore” as the girls work to become first generation college students.
Blessin Giraldo, Tayla Solomon, and Cori Grainger face final exams and financial aid forms just like other high school seniors. But they also face unpaid light bills, empty refrigerators, and a special breed of f-boy capable of convincing teenage girls that the all-you-can-eat buffet is a real date.
The dynamics and ancillary characters in “STEP” are immediately recognizable to anyone who has grown up in poverty. There is the mother that is so committed to her daughter's success that she’s willing to do whatever it takes to become a stabilizing force in her life from awkwardly twerking to Beyonce’s “Formation” to working 12 hour shifts as a corrections officer. There’s also the mother whose demons surrounding the process of formal education run so deep that she ducks out on her child’s school college night.
Thankfully they are joined by those who are unfamiliar figures to many black girls “pushed out” of the public school system. Black women in leadership positions. These women are unafraid to engage with, chastise, fight for, and comfort their students. The film shows them connecting tangibly with them in a way that only someone who has been there could. The step team’s coach confides in one of the young ladies that Brooklyn was her Baltimore.
When a college advisor asks one of the exasperated young women if she can have a hug she turns to embrace her and says “always”.
The documentary was filmed at difficult time for the city, which was experiencing civil unrest and national scrutiny in the aftermath of Freddie Gray being killed by police. When the girls found out about the incident they were in school where they were supposed to be safe.
As it becomes clearer with each moment that the looming threat of the world’s injustice stands ready to undo their progress at any second viewers will find themselves praying that they can escape the traps set for them in time.
One of those traps is division. As the girls in slightly better circumstances lose patience with the antics of their teammates they are reminded to have empathy by world weary women who have seen this all before that just happen to be their mothers.
When the group’s synchronized movements in their showstopping final performance are literally flawless you almost don’t care if they win or lose. The point is they’re in this together and they ‘gon be alright.
A group of Youtube binging, Chance The Rapper loving, black lives matter chanting, teens that idolize the long heralded beauty of Marilyn Monroe as much as they do the admirable poise of Michelle Obama on a high school step team is about as strong of a visual statement where our community’s cultural values lies as it gets. Another (hopefully less prophetic) symbol of that place is the image of this group of teens in front of the memorial of the late Freddie Gray.
Coming of age now where you couldn’t escape the narrative of “I could be next” even if you wanted to these young women have (justified) anger in their eyes as they describe the differences in what they saw on the ground and what the media portrayed. “Like people was cleaning up” said one step team member “But CNN didn’t show that.”
Lipitz, to her credit, was determined to show it all. The filmmaker doesn’t just focus on inequality and “STEP” is better for it. It’s not a fairy tale but it’s also not trauma porn
It’s moments like watching the girls getting yelled at for wearing uggs to practice, and strolling into a step competition looking like #squadgoals that reminds you that they are children.
The smiles, laughter, and hope really make this film a must see. These young black girls may not be carefree but that doesn’t keep them from shining.
"STEP" hits theaters this week Check out the trailer below.
Photo Credits: Fox Searchlight