When Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz began planning her first feature documentary, Step, she wanted to portray a story about her hometown, Baltimore, that showed it wasn't just like The Wire. She had already started filming when Freddie Gray died in police custody after being beaten by the Baltimore cops who arrested him, and with that in mind, she intended to create a film that, she tells Bustle, would "change the conversation" about the city. What she ended up producing, however, was a very different film — Step, a doc about the inspiring, empowering women on a high school step team. What a happy mistake, because Step is an electrifying celebration of the collective powers of its leading ladies.
And even though the film's major themes didn't end up being what Lipitz originally planned for, they were still major factors in the film. "The stakes had been raised and the finish line had moved and the flame had been turned up," Lipitz says, siting down for a recent interview. "I think [Gray's] horrible death gave them strength and courage to be so honest and really go there with the movie."
When Lipitz says "them," she's talking about the 19 girls of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women's step team, which was started by a group of students entering their senior year in 2015, when the film opens. Although the film opens with footage from the coverage of Gray's death, it quickly juxtaposes that solemn tone with a joyful one: high school girls goofing off in the hallways and dancing alongside their fellow students. Still, Gray's death, and issues of race and brutality, are never far from the forefront. In one incredible performance for a competition, the team performs a Black Lives Matter routine.
"You see these beautiful, smart, capable, talented, articulate, women — young women, that you’ve fallen in love with at this point in the movie and they stand up and they hold up their hands and they say 'it could’ve been us,'" Lipitz says, describing the chilling scene.
Current events serve as important context that amplifies the students' courage and determination to step, an act that, for many of them, serves as an escape from troubled home lives. "We started with this ‘let’s change the conversation about Baltimore and Freddie Gray’ and I think by the end of the film, it’s about women." Lipitiz says. "It’s about women coming together and doing something powerful together because when they come together, when they don’t let people divide and conquer them, then there’s no limit to what we can do."
Step follows the team in their final year together, long after team captain Blessin Giraldo organized the group back in sixth grade. It's a big year for the girls, both in regards to step and academics, as their school focuses heavily on college prep and college admission. One of the team members, Cori Grainger, is a highly-motivated straight-A student who (spoiler alert) ended up graduating as class valedictorian and getting accepted to her dream school, Johns Hopkins. In the film, Grainger is shown facing intense pressure due to money and grades, and some scenes show her crying over the difficulties her family has faced.
Talking to Bustle now, Grainger says she has "no regrets" about her scenes in the movie. Part of what makes the movie so powerful is its universality, the fact that, as Grainger says, "struggle is the one thing that every person has in common." What helped her get through her obstacles, however, was the confidence she earned from step; a self-described introvert before joining the club, she found a "creative outlet" through step.
"Really, if you are confident in what you do then it really doesn’t matter if you mess up and that can go for performing, that can go for when I start my career, that can go for when I’m in classes," Grainger says. "I was confident before [step] but... it really helped me to find a place and to not be afraid to speak up for myself and become my own self-advocate, which is something that takes you a long way in life."
The doc is truly is a showcase and celebration of loud, proud, and strong womanhood, with even the mothers of the step team members also heavily featured, due to their involvement in their kids' lives. "When women are divided and conquered, bad things happen. When women all come together and stick together, incredible things happen," Lipitz says.
Incredible things do happen in Step, including a Hangover-esque slow motion walk and some beautifully vulnerable moments, not to mention kick-ass step routines. Step not only fulfills Lipitz's original goal to humanize the people of Baltimore, but its (literally) loud feminist message will resonate with its audience in a massive way.