Lena Waithe has been staying busy. The Emmy winning Master of None writer just debuted her own drama, The Chi, on Showtime. And it was also revealed that fans can catch her onscreen in a new role on the Netflix series, Dear White People, where she’ll be playing a gaudy rapper and reality TV star by the name of P Ninny. Now Waithe, who helped produced the eponymous film upon which Dear White People is based, just released another comedic project about being Black on a white campus. She is one of the producers of Step Sisters, which hit Netflix Friday. But where Dear White People has room to take a deep dive into the racial dynamics of the fictional Westchester University, Step Sisters explores Black and white on more of a 101 level. But it kind of works.
Jamilah (Megalyn Echikunwoke) was born into Black excellence. Both of her parents graduated from Harvard Law, and Jamilah hopes to follow in their footsteps after completing her bachelor’s degree. Something else she and her mother have in common is that they are both members of Theta Chi Phi, a historically Black sorority. Jamilah is the president of her chapter and choreographs all of the step routines that help win regional competitions. She is a student liaison at the college dean’s office, and her white boyfriend, Dane, is a woke bae (played, ironically, by Matt McGorry). She’s used to things going right in her life, an experience that not many other Black women have. Her family legacy is, in itself, a conversation, as Jamilah struggles not to inherit her mother’s superiority complex.
But the central plotline of Step Sisters is the fallout of things going extremely wrong for Jamilah. When her parents refuse to write her letters of recommendation for Harvard because she didn’t meet a 4.0 GPA, Jamilah needs to find another alumnus to do it. Her boss Dean Berman (Robert Curtis Brown) agrees to help her in exchange for a favor. He’s trying to run damage control after a member of white sorority Sigma Beta Beta was recorded having sex in public. He thinks that entering the Betas into a step competition will turn their reputation around and save them from being unchartered, and wants Jamilah to teach them how.
Anyone familiar with Black Greek life knows what a can of worms is opened when Jamilah agrees to these terms. Stepping is a Black art form, and central to showmanship, socializing, and expression within Black Greek life. By teaching these skills to the Betas, Jamilah is essentially providing them with the tools to execute another form of cultural appropriation. And this is Step Sisters' entire entry point to exploring race and all the things that come with it: appropriation, tokenization, interracial dating as a political act, and validating one's Black card. However, while all of these themes come up, the movie doesn’t pretend to offer any solution of nuance to solve them — a strategy that works, if you ask me. Step Sisters does not get caught up in trying provide explanations and historical context for how relations come to exist on college campuses. The entire movies seems to imply that these are simply the circumstances under which Black students find themselves, and it's up to them to sort them out.
That's why the strategy of not offering solutions does not work for Jamilah, though. Her unwillingness to deal with her own feelings about her Blackness, betraying her own sorority, and refusing to check her white boyfriend blow up in her face as she chases a coveted letter of recommendation. There are other stories to tell about being Black on a PWI campus that don’t involve racial injustice and trauma. Like college students everywhere, it also involves getting to know the best and worst of ourselves before we move forward with our lives. Jamilah brought that narrative to life in Step Sisters, and honestly, that’s good enough for me.