Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz had been making shorts about first-generation college students and girls’ education for years when the perfect opportunity for her feature debut, Step, fell into her lap.
After working with a group of girls in New York, Lipitz inspired her mother, Brenda Brown Rever, a women’s rights activist who was born and raised in Maryland, to model an all-girls public charter school after five public schools in New York that each have a 100 percent graduation rate. So when Rever founded the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW)—“she recruited her daughter to make films for her,” laughs Lipitz.
The fledgling director made use of her strong connection with the founding class of her mother’s school and her knowledge of Broadway musical structure to craft Step, the heartwarming journey of BLSYW’s step team, the Lethal Ladies. (Stepping is a form of dance drawn from African and Caribbean styles in which dancers use their bodies to create percussive music.) The feature premiered to strong reviews at this January’s Sundance Film Festival and has made various stops on the festival circuit since.
Ko Ricker, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When did you first meet the girls?
Amanda Lipitz (AL): I met them when they were in the sixth grade, and for many years they saw me go in and out of their school with cameras—just kind of promoting the school, but I was also there a lot when the cameras weren’t there. We were building this community with a founding class of 120 sixth-grade girls and adding a new class every year. They started the step team in the sixth grade, but I didn’t know about the rich history of it coming from the mines in Africa, and then now in North America being a collegiate sport, but I did know musicals. I knew musicals and how a musical is structured. In the eighth grade, Blessin [Giraldo] was actually in New York with another young woman named Naysa [Reames]. They were interviewing a woman named Sherrilyn Ifill at the ACLU, and I was filming them and Blessin said to me, “The next time you come to school with a camera, you need to come film the step team.” And the next time, she had everybody ready to go. I walked into practice and for me, it was what happened in a great musical. When a character can’t speak anymore, they sing—and that’s what these young women were doing with step.
MM: Was it ever difficult to get them to trust you, and to work with you, and to let you into their lives?
AL: I didn’t find it difficult. They saw my shorts, they knew my sensibility, they knew I didn’t have an exploitative nature to me. They knew my family, they saw me have babies. I watched them grow up, I knew their families as well. We were building a community together. So it wasn’t even like I was an outsider. In the ninth grade I met with all the families and I said, “I have this idea to make a documentary about this step team and the founding class and I’d like to change the conversation about Baltimore, and I’m wondering if you all want to as well?” And everybody was like, “Yeah, we do!”
In the 10th grade, one night I just filmed them stepping. I didn’t tell them to share personal lives, I just was learning how to film step and trying to understand what step was. And then I started filming interviews, where I would do these like hours of interviews with each girl. Talk to them about their lives, who they were, got to know them all better individually and then in junior year I started filming everyday. I filmed Blessin missing three days of school and getting kicked off the step team. It was devastating for everyone and me. And I watched these young women pull her back in and I just knew that this was going to be so special. [Back then] I was only filming maybe 20 days. And then Freddie Gray was killed in April of their junior year and it just lit a fire in all of us. I think really, honestly, Freddie Gray’s death made these young women so brave and made them courageous to tell their story, made them want to tell it more. I felt privileged that they let me tell it. By the way, none of the footage from previous years is in the movie—it all starts in junior year, except for the opening of the film, which was the ninth grade and one of the first times I ever really filmed them.
MM: Was it a difficult decision to cut all of the previous footage?
AL: Not at all, because I really structured the film as a musical. I saw it as a rise-fall-rise. That opening was always my opening from the very first trailer—for me, that was how the movie needed to open: “This is who we are, and this is what we want, and we will be sisters until the day we die,” and then you hear it again in the 11 o’clock number [an impressive, memorable song that occurs late in the second act of a musical], and it means something totally different because you know that they are sisters until the day they die. I thought of the college application process as a musical number, with papers flying and hands shaking and computers typing, and so I made it into a montage. For me, the step, the performances, pushed the story forward, like in a musical. I knew the structure would be senior year because I knew senior year is relatable to everybody, no matter where you grow up.
MM: How important was the music selection to the story?
AL: Music propels it so much. The moments before the Baltimore step show and finding the right song for that—when I found “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” and I found the Thelma Houston version instead of the Joan Jett version, I was like, “Yes, this is it! They have the music in me!” Hearing the lyrics to the opening in the song where she says, “Ain’t got no troubles in my life / No foolish dreams to make me cry / I’m never frightened or worried / I know I’ll always get by…” Oh my god, it was like the song was written for these young women. I thought about [each choice] very, very carefully and then obviously the culmination of it is the graduation theme of “Jump.” That was [actually] all cut and done to a different song, and I knew I couldn’t use the song because it had become too popular, so I was just so fortunate to be able to work with Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman on an original song for that moment, and really talk about what that song should be. Being able to have an original song with the lyrics embodying every single thing I was trying to say in this whole film, that was just the cherry on top.
MM: I want ask you about the structure of the film and your process for choosing the three main girls that your film was going to focus on—Blessin, Tayla and Cori. How did you land on those three?
AL: Well Blessin, who started the team, she was the captain. She was the one who asked me to come film them in the first place and she also was this natural-born performer, but also just struggled so much academically. So, obviously, I knew going in that Blessin was going to be the center because she was the center of the team, she was the nucleus of the team, and such a big personality. Cori, I was always struck by her because she was so shy, and kind of sat back and was the observer in life, but then when she would step she would just come alive. And she was number one in the class. [I loved] the juxtaposition of having [two girls] so drawn to step, one who was struggling academically and another excelling academically. Also, I love flipping any stereotype on its head in this film: Cori, a straight-A student, rising straight to the top and with such a good head on her shoulders, is the product of a teenaged mother. I really wanted to tell that story; I wanted to show a different type of teenaged mother. Tayla didn’t come in until the ninth grade, but when she came in, she came in like a freaking tornado and it was incredible. And then her mom was standing on the sidelines in a bulletproof vest suddenly at every practice, and I knew her mom from being around the school, and we would always talk and we formed a friendship. There were several other girls that I followed throughout the year. Certain girls opened up and certain girls decided that it wasn’t something they wanted to participate in. But there were actually some who were into being behind the camera, so we have a couple PA credits and IMDb profiles from some of the girls who ended up helping us behind the scenes, which we were really grateful for.
My editor Penelope Falk did the most incredible job. She came on in March and started watching like 400-plus hours of footage. When I came up for air after filming was over she had a wall of index cards color coded of all the scenes and moments she saw, and they were mainly Blessin, Cori and Tayla. There was one other person we tried to work in but we really felt like three was the magic number. And then we had the coach and the college counselor. Really and truly, my biggest goal was that I wanted you to feel like this was a team, that there were 19 girls on this team. I’m really grateful when people come up after the filming and say, “You know that girl in the back who does that thing, that was me in high school.” And even if you don’t know their names, you feel like you do.
MM: You had a great festival run, including Sundance. What was the festival experience like for you and for the girls?
AL: It’s incredible. Every day I don’t think I can have more pride for these young women, and yet I do. Every city we go to, every Q&A, every time I see how gracious and humble they are. None of us expected any of this to happen; I didn’t make it thinking any of it would happen. We made it for all the right reasons, and when you make things for the right reasons, good things come out of it. All I ever wanted was for these 19 young women to have been proud to have been a part of it, and to be able to go back to Baltimore with their heads held high, that they had made a difference. I’m beyond grateful for Fox Searchlight for giving those young women in the film a chance to inspire women and men, and moms and dads, and educators around the country. MM
Step opens in theaters August 4, 2017, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.