Step is probably one of the best films doing the festival circuit this year. It’s one of those films that feels like a gift – I loved every minute of it and the pleasant aftertaste of the experience stayed with me for days.
Step is a documentary which follows Blessin, Cori and Tayla, three young African American girls, in their final year at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. They were selected to attend at age 11 and given extra support throughout their years there to give them a greater chance of being accepted into a university. Blessin, a force of nature, started a step team a few years earlier, and this is the thread that draws the girls’ stories together.
Blessin, Cori and Tayla could have easily grown up believing that they couldn’t ever go to college, that the challenges they face were going to overcome them. Instead of being consumed by bitterness, the girls are incredibly hopeful and selfless. I was humbled to see this in the midst of dealing with broken families, financial stress, and recovery from domestic violence.
Director Amanda Lipitz did an excellent job of preserving the struggle and let downs of the girls’ stories alongside their successes in a way that told the truth and gave credit where credit was due. I loved watching every victory – especially the small ones that were hard won.
The Baltimore shootings pop up again and again in the backdrop of the story, a sinister undertone that makes it impossible to forget what the girls have to contend with. There are murals of dead teenagers on the city walls and most people knew somebody who had been affected. I can’t believe that girls so young have to deal with feeling that their government and their police are not there to help them. That instead, they’re something to be wary of.
At one point Cori talks about how things are at her house. First, she talks about her amazing mother. She describes her as a magic wand in human form. But she also says she doesn’t want to have to raise her own family in a situation like this. On that particular day, there was no power at her house.
In another moment, Blessin is hanging out with her little nephew – he’s about 6 or 7 – and she starts crying because she wishes there was something she could do about the fact that he doesn’t have anything to eat. She’s like, “It’s not me. I can just wait for my sister to get home. I’m not concerned about me, but he’s only 7. He should have something to eat.” Incredibly, these moments were presented in a way that didn’t gloss over the pain but somehow allowed hope to shine through.
One key vehicle of this hope is the Step group. When the girls were struggling with home or school stress, it was an opportunity for them to act opposite to what they were feeling, to explore a different reality, making it real in the process. At one point Cori confides that Step is absolutely the opposite of her. You can see in the way she dances that she’s exploring a part of herself she doesn’t get to experience much, at least in her own mind. She’s shy and academic, so I can see why she thinks that, but Step brings her steely determination and power to the foreground. Step is a statement saying “I’m strong, angry, and powerful.” Watch me. Deal with me. I’m loud and big and beautiful.
We need to hear more stories like these. Stories of young African American women being leaders in their communities, being friends and children and poor and successful. More than that, we need to hear the whole story – not just their success, but their ordinary lives.
I couldn’t watch Step and not be struck by the preciousness of somebody else’s life. I fell in love with each person on screen. I cried when they cried and cheered out loud during their victories. Watching Step is a lesson in understanding we can’t afford to forego.