The new documentary Step functions both as an underdog story in the classic mold, and as an inspiring story of empowered young women of color changing the narrative of poverty in their lives, through taking control of their education. It achieves moments of real triumph, and moments of truth. However, there is much about director Amanda Lipitz’s movie that feels surface level, a trait that feels particularly troubling when her subjects represent issues (namely poverty and systemic racism) that deserve a much deeper dive than they get here.
The film chronicles a year in the life of a group of African-American girls, all members of the same step dance team at a the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a public charter school in Baltimore. The film follows these young women as they finish out their senior year and prepare to go to college. All the girls are poised to become first-generation college students — if they can keep up their grades and secure enough financial aid. At the same time, they’re also preparing for a big regional step competition at Bowie State, after a disappointing performance the previous year.
In particular, the film follows the journey of three girls on the team. Blessin, the team’s captain, is determined to get out of her mentally ill mother’s house and start a new life, but suffers from abysmal academic performance that threatens her future. Cori is the class valedictorian, and has a great relationship with her mom and stepfather, though her family’s unstable finances (and the needs of her several younger siblings) mean that she sometimes doesn’t eat, or that the family’s power is cut off for days on end. Tayla lives with her single mother, a devoted parent who works early mornings as a corrections officer, and lives for her daughter and the team the rest of the day.
It’s a powerful setup, and the girls’ (and their team’s) journeys are inspiring. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lipitz is more concerned with crafting a tidy, three-act narrative than with taking an honest look at who these girls are, and the issues they face.
While Blessin, Cori, and Tayla have important stories, they’re also the only stories that get told. None of the other girls on the team are even named. Black Lives Matter influences the events of the film, but the issues of racism and police brutality feel merely incidental. This feels particularly odd given that the film was made in the months following the death of Freddie Gray. The Step team performs a powerful BLM-inspired routine at a competition, but the girls never talk about what that performance, or the reasons for it, mean to them.
Step does document incredible accomplishments by strong, amazing young women and dedicated educators that are worth cheering for. It makes a nice, feel-good narrative. But in a public climate where it’s increasingly important to point out and condemn systemic issues of race and poverty, Step wastes a great potential opportunity to personalize the impact of those problems on the people they hurt the most. Seeing these girls graduate is beautiful. Knowing more about the larger obstacles they face on that journey, and in their everyday lives, would be even more powerful.