The first five minutes of Step, Amanda Lipitz’s highly anticipated new documentary, set the tone for a deeply entertaining film that occasionally sacrifices substance for style.
The audience is thrown into the action, hard, as the claps, stomps, and shouts of step dnacing punctuate footage from the 2015 Baltimore Uprising. The effect is powerful; the rallying cry of Freddie Gray made into rhythm by the bodies of a team of young black women in Baltimore. These are the “lethal ladies” of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
In an opening interview, we meet the team’s charismatic and talented captain, Blessin Giraldo, who boasts that she and her friends are “making music with our bodies.” Grinning, she reflects on that minor miracle: “that’s some slick stuff.”
Step is, for better and for worse, some slick stuff too. The film takes its viewers on a journey of catharsis that’s a touch too feel-good—Black Lives Matter, Freddie Gray, poverty, and mental illness are just a few of the themes that are sampled throughout the 83-minute documentary, but the narrative is ultimately one of triumph, as it quickly moves from teary interviews with members of the step team to rousing performances to college acceptance letters. Complicated issues and systems of oppression are portrayed as obstacles that our protagonists—Blessin and her teammates Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon—can and will surmount. Step’s greatest achievement is in centering the lives of three young black women. Lovingly captured by Lipitz, Blessin, Cori and Tayla are full and fascinating characters, fearless and flawed teenagers, individuals and never statistics. They struggle with friendships and family dynamics along with financial instability and food insecurity.
As Paula Dofat, the Director of College Counseling at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, told The Daily Beast, “When I first saw [Step] I was like—my god, people are going to get to see that none of us are really that different. I think there’s more of an economic divide than anything. There’s a Tayla, a Blessin, and a Cori at every school in every neighborhood.” Still, anyone who leaves Step inspired by the tenacity and talent of these “underprivileged” young women will be missing a crucial part of the story, and Lipitz’ ode to rising above one’s circumstances often fails to reckon with the circumstances themselves. “When people say ‘underprivileged,’ it gets under my skin,” Dofat continued. “We’re not underprivileged, we’re under-resourced. If we had the resources, those are the same personalities, the same girls with the same drive, the same determination—we just need an even playing field.”
Dofat and Gari McIntyre (“Coach G”) round out Step’s cast of black women. McIntyre is the team’s coach and mentor, and Dofat is the woman who’s been tasked with guaranteeing that 100 percent of every single class graduates with a “college option.” Dofat calls Step an “amazing ode to the unsung heroism of educators,” and that’s hardly hyperbole; at multiple points throughout the film, we see educators going above and beyond, from home visits with families to heartfelt one-on-ones to hours spent on the phone with college admissions officers. In one particularly moving scene, Blessin leaves the room after a college interview and Dofat proceeds to break down, tearing up and pleading Blessin’s case. “To give you some context, we were less than thirty days from graduation and she was my last girl, my last placement,” Dofat explained. “And I’m really not a crier—well I guess I kind of am a crier, but not in professional situations! I’m emotional, but I try to make sure that I keep some professional decorum about myself, and that was totally out of character for me.
“It wasn’t just about finding her a place,” Dofat continued. “I knew that was my last right fit for her. There were places that she could go, but they were not good fits. She wasn’t gonna make it…And I realized, honestly, that I felt like if this didn’t work…I would have failed her, I would have failed the school, but bigger for me, and sincerely, I felt like I would have failed my community.”
This question of oweing or giving back to one’s community is a common thread in my interviews with Paula Dofat, Gari McIntyre, and director Amanda Lipitz, three women who have, in different ways, dedicated portions of their lives to young black women in Baltimore. Lipitz, a Broadway producer with all of the boundless enthusiasm that suggests, gushes about the Baltimore Leadership School and the many years she’s spent as an honorary member of their community. “I met Blessin, Cori and Tayla when they were 11 years old.” Lipitz recalled. “And I fell in love with them. I came in and out of their school about 5 or 6 times a year just making shorts, promotional films that I was making for the Young Women’s Leadership Network, and every time one of the shorts was shown people would say to us, ‘You should make a documentary.’”
At first, Lipitz didn’t see “the hook”—“We’ve seen the stories of kids getting out and going to college, we’ve seen the sports metaphor for success stories, so I really wanted to find the reason to spend more than 7 to 12 minutes on it.” The reason came in eighth grade, when Blessin roped Lipitz and her camera crew into filming a step team practice. “She had everybody lined up ready to go, and I walked in with the camera crew, and they started to step, and truly I think my heart stopped beating, because it just spoke to me, I had never seen an art form quite like it,” Lipitz said. In the step team, she saw the vision of the Young Women’s Leadership Network in action—sisters empowering one another, teammates pushing each other forward. It also reminded her of “a great musical.” After that, it was a “very slow burn” getting to senior year, accumulating more and more footage and eventually ramping up the project into a full-blown documentary.
When the girls were in ninth grade, Lipitz called a “big meeting” with all the parents. “I said, ‘I want to change the conversation about Baltimore, and look at these amazing young women who are the founding class of this school and are going to be the first in their families to go to college, and they’re incredible steppers!’ I was just like, ‘I see it, I see this.’ And they were like, alright, we’re in.” Lipitz filmed interviews and step practices, went into homes and spoke with families, was a fly on the wall in college counseling meetings and in competition locker rooms. And then, the spring before Blessin, Cori, and Tayla’s senior year, everything changed. “I started cutting a trailer, and then Freddie Gray was killed,” Lipitz remembered. “And I watched my hometown burn. His death, which was such a horrific tragedy, and one I think we’re still trying to unpack, gave them courage. It gave them the strength to tell their stories, because they really, really wanted the world to know who they were.”
While Lipitz is responsible for the degree to which the film was framed through the death of Freddie Gray, it’s Coach G who deliberately brings his story to the fore. The first-time step coach, who says she sees every step performance as an opportunity to spread a “powerful message,” even choreographed a routine for the girls centered around Black Lives Matter. In one of Step’s most moving scenes we get to see Coach G’s vision come to life, as the step team chants, “Hands up, don’t shoot. Say it loud. I’m black, and I’m proud.” McIntyre, who sees herself as both a coach and a mentor, insists that she would have been having these conversations with her team with or without cameras in the room. “As far as speaking about Black Lives Matter, black girl magic, black girls rock, Freddie Gray, these are stories that are told all over the country,” McIntyre told The Daily Beast. “And unfortunately, the story of Freddie Gray was told through the eyes of people who looked at him as a criminal and not through the eyes of people who looked at him as a person who lived in my neighborhood and contributed to my neighborhood. So I wanted these young women to know that there are going to be some people who don’t look at you as the person that you are because they don’t know you, and you need to be prepared for that.”
McIntyre’s first appearance in the documentary was also her first day meeting the step team—she introduces herself as Coach G, and tells the students that she lived on the same street as Freddie Gray. Lipitz is similarly quick to locate herself within the larger Baltimore community, describing herself as “born and raised in Baltimore.” “My mother’s born and raised in Baltimore, and my mom has been an activist there my whole life for women and girls,” she told The Daily Beast. Lipitz grew up outside of the inner-city that Step documents, in Owings Mills, Maryland, a Baltimore suburb. She is also white. “I remember growing up with a domestic violence hotline being run from my dining room table,” Lipitz continued. So that was the world I grew up in and the mom I had, and I was so inspired by Ann Tisch who founded [the Young Women’s Leadership Network] that I told my mom that I thought she should come up and take a look at these schools and possibly replicate one in Baltimore. And she did. And she recruited her daughter to make films for her. And I did!”
As the A.V. Club noted, Lipitz’ family history raises a bit of a red flag: “The Baltimore Leadership School For Young Women itself is painted in the best light, but of course it would be; Lipitz’ mother founded it, a fact that Step doesn’t feel the need to acknowledge.” But according to Lipitz, her multi-generational ties to the school are what made Step possible. “[The families] saw my work, they had seen the films that I had made for her school, and they had seen the girls whose lives I followed and whose homes I had gone into, and they knew the tone of my storytelling,” she explained. “They also knew my mother, they saw me have babies, I was a part of this community, they knew my heart was in the right place. So I’m sure there were concerns, absolutely. It’s scary to do something like this. But everyone I feel put their concerns aside because we had a bigger message, we had a bigger thing we wanted to do with this…they also knew, for sure, that whether there was a film or not, I was going to be a part of their daughters’ lives, and I was going to be a champion of the step team no matter what.”
And while Lipitz’ past life making promotional shorts lends itself to Step’s eternal optimism and rosy tone, the Baltimore Leadership School really does seem like a one-of-a-kind community. Dofat insisted she’s never worked at a school quite like it. “It is part of the culture that students and families have your cell phone number,” she offered as an example. “And they use it! Families invite us to weddings and birthday parties and engagement parties…There are actually times I’ve come home and there’s girls on my sofa. We’re family.”
Both Dofat and McIntyre seemed to think that Step would be an extension of Lipitz’ previous work, not an award-winning documentary with a Sundance premiere and press tour. “Actually, I had no idea what the aims of the films were,” Dofat laughed. “That probably sounds so horrible, but I didn’t. I’ve known Amanda for seven years. I’ve been a part of some of her shorts for low-income students and first-generation students when I was in New York. That’s how I met her. I just knew she did great work and to my knowledge that she was a woman of integrity, and she wanted something fabulous. So I didn’t quite know what it was going to culminate in, but I knew that she was trying to do something positive, and I don’t think even she knew that she was gonna get what she got. I think we probably all thought it was gonna be, ‘Oh, this step thing that people are now going to get to learn about, and see these girls go to college, yay!’ But it turned out to be so much more.” Any good documentary has layers of impact, and Step is no exception. McIntyre hopes viewers “take away that [step] is a traditional art form. It’s not dance. I hope that people recognize that step has been in African-American communities for centuries, and it’s an art form that stands on its own.” Meanwhile, Dofat sees the film as a “call to action”: “I don’t think you can see this film and not feel like you have to do something. Or if you’re doing something, say, ‘Am I doing enough?’”