***1/2 out of ****
(for thematic elements and some language)
Released: August 4, 2017 limited; August 18 wide
Runtime: 84 minutes
Director: Amanda Lipitz
Starring: Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, Tayla Solomon, Gari “Coach G” McIntyre, Paula Dofat
Set against the backdrop of the 2015 Freddie Gray tragedy in Baltimore, what makes Step resonate even more today is that it opens wide in theaters just one week after the neo-Nazi protests of Charlottesville.
Step, a stirring documentary about an inner-city African-American dance troupe from an all-girls public charter school, only makes tangential reference to the Gray aftermath (for cultural context) and has nothing to do with white nationalists. Yet it now has a power that director Amanda Lipitz and her real-life subjects couldn’t have possibly imagined.
On the surface, recent films like Detroit, Moonlight, and Selma are more thematically relevant to our cultural divide, and seminal documentaries such as O.J.: Made in America, 13th, and I Am Not Your Negro have more to say about U.S. racial tensions that continue in the 21st Century.
But when it comes to a movie that can actually affect change, Step transcends them all. How is that even possible? It comes down to something pretty simple, and fundamental: those other movies are protests against injustice, but Step is an answer to it.
It’s an answer because its basis is proactive, not reactive. What we see isn’t a response to a wrong; it’s an institutional pre-emptive strike against a vicious generational cycle that still plagues this nation, stemming from its original sin.
You may watch the news, feel hopeless, and wonder, “What on earth can possibly be done?” When you watch Step, you’ll actually see the answer. This. This. A thousand times this. What the heroes of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women are doing, please, for the love of God, duplicate that over and over, anywhere and everywhere, again and again and again.
In 2009, that educational experiment in the heart of Baltimore began, a publicly funded charter school with the core purpose to not simply graduate every one of its young female students but to also get them into colleges (a first for most of their families).
The 2015-16 school year marked the first graduating class for BLSYW. Step follows the stories of three seniors from the school’s dance squad – Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger, and Tayla Solomon – through academic and personal challenges, and their team’s pursuit of a first ever scholarship competition title for the aptly named “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW”.
Blessin is charisma incarnate, a founder of the Lethal Ladies that stacks her Bible and Bob Fosse book together, but her passion is also volatile, as much a strength as a liability, making her the most challenging academic project. Cori is the exact opposite, a quiet type striving for valedictorian whose involvement in dance is outside her comfort zone. Tayla is somewhere in-between, a determined introvert who reflexively pushes back at authority but comes around to its wisdom.
This isn’t just about the girls; it’s also about the women who form them. We get to know the three mothers as much as their daughters, each who have fought and continue to overcome their own bad life choices. There’s also Paula Dofat, the school’s guidance counselor. She is an absolute gladiator (for and with each student) that strives to help girls reach their full potential. Dance team coach Gari McIntyre is the lynchpin that unifies them all, as much an advocate for the moms and administrators as she is the girls.
These are the women that raise, train, and mentor these young ladies of promise. They’re fighting for these girls, crying for these girls. It’s not always easy. The love is often tough, strict. There are hard lessons along with the uplifting ones; life victories, but also losses. The absence of men is glaring (save one loving stepdad), but that’s an issue for another time. Suffice it to say, that absence makes the fortitude and resolve by these women of all ages that much more inspiring.
The guidance these moms and mentors show is rooted in the truth that goals must have discipline, and vice versa. One without the other doesn’t work. Discipline alone is just discouraging, and goals alone only remain dreams. In turn, the gratitude the girls show to their teachers for this tough love, and the pride they have in their mothers, is a beautiful example of what happens when families and schools work together.
Along with the human stories, Step is a thoroughly persuasive argument for the politically-contentious issue of publicly funded charter schools. Those who oppose them have their agendas, but in light of movies like this (Waiting for “Superman” is another), those agendas wither. If you don’t walk away convinced that charter schools are a transformative societal good, I honestly don’t know what to tell you, other than to put politics aside, empower educators who will care and who will fight, and give disenfranchised kids an honest chance.
Step isn’t just a crowd-pleaser, it’s a life-changer. Movies and stories like these work so much better, and more powerfully, than any divisive, circular political debate. This isn’t theoretical; it’s real. The humanity is undeniable. How can a white supremacist watch something like Step and not at least question his ideology? Sure, there are some who’ve completely hardened their hearts beyond persuasion, but for those who’ve been raised to think a certain bigotry yet their hearts are still soft, and open, Step can work like a humbling epiphany.
Protests have their place, but we need hope. This is credible hope. Cable pundits and late night comics can spew their biased intellectual bile and snark all they want, and citizen slacktivists can tweet and post with a righteous moral superiority that earns them easy “like”s, but it’s these valiant teachers and warrior mothers that are actually making a difference.
The media is toxic noise. This is clarity. You want to know what I think and how I feel about what’s going on in our country right now? Simple: Step is what I think. Step is how I feel. Step is what I believe.