There is a deep ache embedded in Black femaleness — one not often considered when examining the experiences of brown hued women and girls. A mix of passion, fear and determination grips you and jolts you awake, settling deep into your person as you transition from adolescence to womanhood. Amanda Lipitz’s outstanding debut documentary STEP captures all of those feelings, provoking tears and electrifying the viewer’s soul.
STEP opens in Baltimore during the fall of 2015. Just a few months after the horrifying murder of 25-year-old Freddie Gray— the city and the rest of the country remained on edge. On Franklin Street, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a haven for some of the city’s most vulnerable. STEP centers on three young women in their senior year —all members of the school’s inaugural class, chronicling their personal lives, their educational endeavors and following them into the gymnasium where they lose themselves in the stomping and bolstering beats of step dance routines.
Effervescent step captain Blessin Giraldo started the team in the sixth grade, but her frequent absences (she missed 53 days of school the year prior) and rocky home life causes friction in the classroom and in her relationships with her teammates. Cori Grainger, a quiet straight-A student, uses stepping to tap into her alter ego. It’s a side of her that stays hidden away at home with her mother, stepfather and six younger siblings. Cori seems most comfortable coding on her laptop and striving for an acceptance letter to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University. Then there’s Tayla Solomon — who proclaims that she’s a notch down from Beyoncé when it comes to her step skills — her ever-present corrections officer mother keeps the deadpan teen in check.
As the “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW” press forward in pursuit of the ultimate prize, placement in the Bowie State step competition they must learn to confront every obstacle thrown their way. Life can be callous to Black women, so for younger girls, the challenges that they encounter often seem insurmountable.
Lipitz’s STEP isn’t the downtrodden painful narrative that Hollywood likes to trot out when they do get around to depicting Black women. Instead, it is a spectacular embrace of Black sisterhood. As Blessin, Cori and Tayla move through their senior year (wavering at times, because that’s what teenagers do) it’s the Back women around them that remain steadfast in lifting them up. There is step coach Gari McIntyre (a newcomer to the team), whose tough love and relentless teachings on teamwork and perseverance that get them through practices. The school’s straight-shooting Principal Chevonne Hall and Director of College Curriculum, Paula Dofat treat every girl as if they were their own. These women act as shields and support systems for the girls who are about to step into the real world. At BLSYW, no girl is allowed to fade into the background.
For Blessin more than anyone, step is life. A magnetic young woman with boundless amounts of creativity, Blessin’s innate warmth is often stifled by a deeply impoverished home life and a mother who deals with chronic bouts of depression. The aspiring designer is often left to struggle through the muck of it on her own which causes her to retreat into herself and lash out at others. What Lipitz and Editor Penelope Falk get right in this swiftly paced 83-minute film is that they refuse to wallow in the often troubled circumstances of the young women’s’ lives. Compassion is one thing, but there is no room for pity here. The girls are too busy struggling to get to the next level, to elevate, educate and demand even more of themselves.
STEP gets the magic and pain of being a Black girl right. There are dates, awkward sex talks and conversations surrounding the anxiety of paying college tuition. However, the rhythm of step stands at the center. The “Lethal Ladies” powerful routines channel the emotions, energy and frustration that all Black girls feel especially when everywhere you turn the world is screaming that you aren’t enough.
Step premieres Aug. 4 2017
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami