There is a bit of risk involved when a white woman takes on the responsibility of telling a story about black girls and their communities. A lot can get lost in translation, leaving the end product flat and flavourless. With meaningful diversity in high demand, this isn’t a ball to be dropped. It’s a risk that Amanda Lipitz undertook when she made the documentary Step. And it paid off. The film follows three black girls in Baltimore during their senior year of high school, a time marked by the death of Freddie Gray and subsequent riots, the college admission process, and the quest to take first place at the Bowie State step competition.
Step won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Since its debut at Sundance, Fox Searchlight has also purchased rights for the film for over $4 million according to Deadline. The deal includes distribution and remake rights. But this is more than a personal victory for Lipitz, who has accomplished no small feat as a female director.
Step tells the story of a black community the way it should be told: as a series of overlapping themes and layers, each with a history of their own. The heightened racial tensions in their native Baltimore are conveniently highlighted in the wake of Gray’s death. But the incident and the city-wide riots that ensued thereafter aren’t framed as an eye-opening moment about the realities of race for the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women step team. Instead, they represent just another layer, albeit unsettling, of what it means to be black in a city like Baltimore. Dialogue about the events surrounding Gray’s death come to the teenagers as easy as conversations about reality television.
It’s the ease with which Step captures black joy, even in the midst of such high levels of personal and communal stress, that makes it special. Stepping is a style of dance created by historically black fraternities and sororities. Stepping involves turning the whole body into an instrument, and collectively with other members of the team, putting on an orchestrated performance. The connection between stepping as a practice rooted in higher education and the fact that the seniors of the BLSYW are using it as a way to make college a reality for themselves cannot be overlooked.
In movies and television, the way out of the hood is too often frames as a fantastical golden ticket saga. The payoff being a life of fame from a professional sports league or the music industry. But social mobility also looks like being the first in your family to go to college. It looks like financing that education without amassing a lifetime of student loan debt. Despite the severe lack of resources coming into poor and working-class black communities, we have still managed to create outlets like stepping that can serve as a pipeline toward that mobility.
Lipitz, who was involved in the founding of BLSYW charter school, is doing her part to enrich this pipeline away from the camera as well. She will be using proceeds from the deal with Fox Searchlight to go toward scholarships for the 19 girls on the team and a donation to the school. The success of Step is an example of putting privilege to work and letting our stories tell themselves.
Step is released in cinemas in the UK on 11th August