New this week in limited release is a documentary from director/producer Amanda Lipitz called Step. In a new all female charter school called Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, or BLSYW, the step team is influencing the members’ lives both on and off stage. The film follows these girls as they are empowered by their families, teachers, counselors, and coaches to strive to win a step championship for the first time, and achieve the goal of the school, to be one of an entire senior class accepted into college. Winner of a Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at Sundance, Step is the perfect reminder that, together, and without giving in to those who hate or spout bigotry, a community can help everyone in it rise and succeed.
The hashtag #blackgirlmagic is being spread by those who have seen the film, not just because one of the graduates of the charter school featured in the film had it on her cap at graduation, but because the film itself is about truly inspiring young ladies, who are almost all women of color. As spirited and remarkable as these step team members are, even more moving is seeing the commitment and passion of the teachers and administrators. At one point, college counselor Paula Defat nearly begs college admittance representatives to accept one of her charges, and is driven to tears. She explains to them that she otherwise fears for the girl’s future. So much for teachers not caring for their students and phoning it in.
The three main subjects of Step are Blessin Giraldo, who has a very strong personality and drive, but gets in her own way, Cori Grainger, a straight-A student who aspires to a highly competitive college, and hopes for a scholarship to make it possible, and Tayla Solomon, who has perfected an eye roll for her mother, a dedicated correctional officer who somehow always finds time to support the step team and its members. When Blessin says, early in the film, “step is life”, for her, it’s true. She is the leader who started the team, but for her and many others in the school, it’s a way out and beyond poverty and the status quo, to college and fulfilling a new vision of success for themselves.
Step was filmed at a time when Baltimore was still attempting to make sense of Freddie Gray’s death, in which six officers of the city’s police department were charged with second-degree homicide and acquitted, which led to unrest across the city. It is being released in an environment where the president called the “inner cities” a “disaster” where “African-Americans and Hispanics are living in hell”. This movie is a testament to the women, their families, and the professionals in an urban setting where poverty is an issue, who work to better their circumstances, despite the challenges they encounter. It also shows the full, meaningful lives they choose to live regardless. They, their school, and their community are doing amazing work. The fact that these girls often live in such difficult conditions is not only exampled in the documentary, but it is also represented in a number of step routines, like one called “Black Lives Matter”. During their rhythmic stepping and clapping movements, they repeatedly call out “hands up, don’t shoot”.
Amanda Lipitz is someone who walks the walk when it comes to putting her heart, money, and passion into her projects in film and onstage. She is a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and documentary filmmaker, but she also serves on multiple boards, and continues advocating at her Alma Mater Tisch School of the Arts, as well as at NYU, and PONY (Playwrights of New York). She helped get shows seen through building numerous sponsorships on Broadway with companies like Tiffany, Maybelline, and Apple (a company notorious for being reticent in creating charity partnerships.) For Step, she began filming the girls of the step team, called The Lethal Ladies of Baltimore, or “LLOB”, when they started it at age 11, as part of BLSYW’s inaugural class. Lipitz had helped as one of 30 local volunteers when her mother Brenda Brown Rever led the movement to open BLSYW in 2009. In June of 2016, as shown in the documentary, the school had succeeded in getting a 100% college acceptance rate, and over half those going to college would be the first in their family to do so.
Step is one of those documentaries that both fascinates and uplifts. It will no doubt be placed on a shortlist for interpretation through feature film, but before that happens, see the lethal ladies of Baltimore do their thing onstage. Watch them and those who support them creating goals offstage and tenaciously going after them. The name step clearly isn’t about just the dance, but also the forward movement these powerful ladies are committing to, everyday. #StepisLife indeed.