With any documentary the chief concern is not whether the filmmaker’s presence will alter the truth of a narrative, but just the degree to which it will do so. Most documentarians will agree that simply by pointing a camera at a story, a little bit of its genuineness is left out. However, those same filmmakers will certainly — and in many cases, correctly — argue that even if a bit of reality is lost, the truth is pulled into sharper focus.
Such is the case with Step, a minor but effective documentary about the members of the step team at an all-girls high school in inner-city Baltimore. For those not in the know, step is a form of choreographed dance – a sort of mix between cheerleading and slam poetry – that, if not for this movie, I would probably still be referring to as “stomping the yard.” I’ve never seen Stomp the Yard, but I assume it’s about step. At this particular school, which I cannot find the name of since every google search involving “step” and “school” ultimately leads to the Step Up franchise, the step team serves not just as an after school activity, but an escape from the pressures of everyday life. For this group of young women, the luxury of feeling empowered is exactly that: a luxury. High school is a turbulent time for anybody, but for African American females in Baltimore the pressures increase. Exponentially so when you add the hope of attending college and the promise of ascension to a higher quality of life to the mix. It’s the goal of this specialized institution, which only accepts a small amount of applicants a year, to have a 100% college attendance rate for their alumni.
It’s these pressures which build the film’s narrative thrust, and director Amanda Lipitz is smart to let these girls tell their own story. Very little is offered by way of classic documentary structure, which gives the film a freewheeling energy that makes it easy to forget how little step is actually featured in the film. Instead, this tale is more about highlighting the ways that a system can be designed to exclude people, and how much of a fight must be brought by said people in order to buck it.
As previously mentioned, the presence of the camera has an effect on the proceedings, and it is perhaps the most interesting part of Step. For some of these girls you can immediately see the way they take to the camera; the way they showboat; the way they play up interpersonal drama. For others the camera appears to be an intrusion. For others, an unwanted distraction. It’s the way each girl reacts which serves to show us who they are more than any talking head or narration could. Actually, if memory serves, neither of these devices are used at all.
Step also follows a handful of administrators who are under as much pressure as the students. If this, the school’s first graduating class, cannot achieve a 100% college acceptance rate, can they expect the school to live on? It’s as inspiring as it is heartbreaking, and in an increasingly cynical world it’s intoxicating to watch educators who care as deeply as these go to work.
Did I mention that the girls have never placed at the annual step competition? Well, they haven’t, and this is their last chance to do so before graduating. I won’t spoil it, but know that the final performance is a delight. The emotional resonance more than makes up for the straightforward way it is captured (which likely due to the limitations inherent to what looks to be a guerrilla style shoot). There’s as much passion here as there is at the end of any fiction, and the truth is on the face of everyone who passes the lens. From the performers to their coaches to their parents, the one thing you see in everyone’s eyes is empowerment. You’re apt to stomp out of the theater, not in anger, but in joy. There’s plenty of goodness in this world and Step is a potent reminder of what it looks like and what it can accomplish.
Step opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.