When I was 17 years old, I was in and out of the guidance counselor’s office at my high school, surrounded by college applications, financial aid informational packets, and my transcript. These regular meetings started when I was a junior, back when more options were on the table and the sky was the limit, when I still felt like I could be the superhero I always knew I was destined to be. But something changed when we were down to the wire and only a mere few months separated me from my college dreams. Suddenly, the conversations in the guidance office shifted to “Well, you have to think about your financial situation” and “…make realistic choices” and “No one is just going to hand anything to a young black girl. You have to fight for it.” And so I did.
Years later, success remains a fight. In fact, it’s a full-on battle in this sociopolitical climate to simply find the will. Black girls and women are constantly told we have to work twice as hard to just stay in the game, our stories aren’t valued enough to be presented on screen, and that our lives don’t matter. So how do our young black girls and women overcome this predominant narrative, and also embody every ounce of the #BlackGirlMagic they’re told they have? Director Amanda Lipitz explores these very questions in her remarkable new documentary Step. Following a group of young girls at a Baltimore charter school, on the heels of 25-year-old Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police, the film highlights their personal to struggles to succeed against all odds, to rise against the statistics. While the narrative focuses on the group’s impending step competition, a major one that will put their school on the map, it is a mere gateway to its more significant statement on how black women and girls value success in a society that has not accounted for them.
Blessin Giraldo is a senior with dreams of moving out of her mom’s house and living in New York City as a dancer. She’s one of the older students in the group, and could practically teach the class on her own. While her dedication and commitment to step is undeniable, her academic grades could use a boost. But with just a few months away from graduation, self-doubt settling in, and minimal options, Blessin is overwhelmed with stress—her usual megawatt smile replaced with a tear-stained face. Her home life, while filled with love from her mother, sister, and nephew, also includes food stamps and uncertainty over when they’ll be able to afford their next meal. But you can see the strength behind Blessin’s tears, the resilience she embodies even when she feels she has nothing left to give. It’s passed down from her mother, also highlighted in the film, who raised her children on her own. Working hard to keep a roof over their heads, she is unfortunately not always able to be there to be a cheerleader for Blessin. But still, Blessin persisted because, like so many of us, she is forced to learn early on how to navigate challenges no matter how insurmountable they seem—even if it means conquering them by herself.
Thankfully, she is also surrounded by other ambitious black girls among her step group, a black woman guidance counselor who’s quick to put her in check whenever she sees her going astray, and a step teacher who pushes her to her fullest potential. Among them are Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon, her fellow ‘step’ sisters on the cusp of graduation and who are also dealing with their own insecurities and financial constraints. Like Blessin, Tayla was raised by a single mother who stayed on her case, never letting her grades slip below Bs. Cori, a self-proclaimed introvert, finds confidence in being a step dancer as she applies to some of the toughest colleges in the nation.
What’s so inspiring about Step is its emphasis on the power of black sisterhood, especially in times of turmoil. It doesn’t hide the obstacles so many young black girls and women face, or the mistakes they make along the way. It doesn’t paint an idyllic picture of what it looks like to be a black teen in the U.S. Their race is very much a part of who they are and how they must navigate the world around them. They are young black girls growing up at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, on the cusp of an adulthood that remains unclear, and determined to succeed. They laugh together, cry together, lean on each other during difficult times, and yes they argue, but they still represent the ultimate #squadgoals. During this era of pop culture, it is essential to see authentic, positive images like this on the big screen. It is important for young girls and women to see that through it all they can still be the superhero they always knew was inside them.