The premiere of the documentary "Step," a film about the members of the Lethal Ladies step team, from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. (Baltimore Sun video)
Even 19 years after leaving for New York City, Amanda Lipitz feels protective of her hometown. Which is one reason she's so proud of her documentary, "Step," and what she hopes it tells the world about Baltimore.
"Every American city has problems," says Lipitz, 37. "But it's important that — yes, acknowledge the problems, we are honest about the problems. But also tell the other side of it, the other stories, the stories of hope and joy."
That, she says with a look that's half empathy and half emphasis, is what "Step" is all about.
Shot in the months following the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody, Lipitz's film, opening nationwide Aug. 4, focuses on three members of the Lethal Ladies step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) as they struggle toward twin goals: winning a prestigious dance tournament coming up in Bowie, and, with graduation looming, getting accepted into college.
The story she tells in "Step," Lipitz says, is the Baltimore she knows.
In "Step," she says, "I think you see neighborhoods and communities and beautiful, smart, brave, complicated, amazing women who are coming together in incredible ways, big and small, achieving dreams and turning every single stereotype on its head."
Lipitz has been filming these girls since 2009, when they entered as the school's first class. Her mother, Brenda Rever, is the school's founder, and Lipitz originally planned a short film to help with fundraising; that plan changed when she heard about the step team being formed, and saw how dynamic the performances were.
Her film was originally going to follow the team members throughout their school careers, but those plans changed after the death of Gray and the resulting spotlight that was shone on Baltimore. "To me," she says, "that was the thing that would make people pay attention." (Lipitz ended up shelving almost all of the footage she shot before April 2015.)
The movie won a special jury prize for inspirational filmmaking at January's Sundance Film Festival. It doesn't shy away from the tumult that followed Gray's death — beginning with images of looting, and of then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake saying, "This is one of our darkest days as a city." But it quickly shows where its heart lies. The film moves to footage of a step practice, of coach Gari McIntyre explaining "I am very well grounded in what's going on in the streets," and of one of her young charges saying, simply, "Step is life."
From there, the movie follows the three senior girls — charismatic Blessin Giraldo, model student (and soon-to-be valedictorian) Cori Grainger and deadpan everywoman Tayla Solomon — as they navigate pressures of academics, family life and step competition, their eyes focused (though not without straying on occasion) on success in all three.
As the award "Step" took home from Sundance suggests, things work out pretty well by the time everything is done. The journey, however, is not easy, filled with bumps, roadblocks and potential pratfalls.
Still, the film's propulsive power comes from everyone's unwillingness to give up — on the students, on the city, or on the dream.
"I truly do think that [Lipitz] has changed the conversation about what's happened in Baltimore," says McIntyre, known as Coach G around the school, who started working with the step team the September after Gray's death and believes the perception of Baltimore as a dangerous and hopeless place predates the events of spring 2015.
" 'The Wire' — I never watched it, but I would go out of state, and they would be, like, 'Where you from? Baltimore?' And the first thing they would say is 'The Wire,' 'The Wire,' 'The Wire.'
"It really portrayed our city as nothing but negativity," says the Baltimore native. "That's not the reality. That's a portion of our city, there are very negative things that go on here. But all over the world, just as well as there are here, very positive things are going on in urban communities everywhere."
Giraldo came up with the idea of having a step team and, as a sixth grader meeting Lipitz for the first time, declared with confidence that she would be a star on Broadway (the girl knew who she was talking to, as Lipitz has been producing Broadway plays since she was 24, winning a Tony in 2016 for "Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge"). Although a force on the dance floor, she has trouble in the classroom, often underperforming academically and presenting a serious challenge for school administrators anxious she realize her goal of making it to college.
Grainger admits to being shy and withdrawn. But to her surprise, all that reticence melts away when she starts stepping, stamping her feet and clapping her hands in tune to the dominating beat. A straight-A student, Grainger is set on getting into the Johns Hopkins University, but isn't sure her family can afford the school's $50,000-a-year tuition — even though she's confident her mother can do anything, describing her (in the movie's most endearing moment) as "a magic wand in human form."
And Solomon, whose deadpan declaration that she's just "a notch down from Beyonce" makes her an audience favorite right away, shares the spotlight with her single mother, Maisha Graves, a corrections officer who never misses a step practice, or the chance to shout encouragement. The pair's love for each other is obvious, and another example of the indomitable support system these girls have been surrounded with.
For their part, Girado, Grainger and Solomon, who sat down as a group for an interview at Harbor East's Four Seasons hotel last week, say they are all-in with Lipitz's oft-repeated desire to "change the conversation about Baltimore." It's their city, they love it, and the idea that people on the outside look on it with a combination of fear and dread galls these 18-year-olds no end.
Her first day at college, Solomon says, "you know how everyone is in class and you introduce yourselves, you stand up and say your major, your class and where you're from? So I say I'm a freshman, and I'm from Baltimore. And everybody's, like, 'Is Baltimore really like 'The Wire'? And I'm just, like, 'Here we go with "The Wire" again.' "
For Grainger, the negative images that dominated TV news coverage of the unrest following Freddie Gray's death painted not only an unflattering portrait of her city, but one at odds with what she experienced. The day after the riots, she and Giraldo were on the street, helping with clean-up efforts ("That was the cleanest I've ever seen North Avenue," she says with a laugh) and seeing a community come together, not tear itself apart.
"Literally, while I was out there, I saw camera crews coming out and recording cars that were flipped upside down or were burnt, literally, to nothing. But they didn't care to turn the camera and show the positive piece, they didn't care to show the police officers and the little kids talking and enjoying each other's company.
"I think that's something that's really important, that's the message that we want to get across. Everything is not just so negative, it's not bad."
Says Giraldo, "This is us putting on for our city, so people can stop overlooking us, stop having these perceptions about us before we enter the room. They say, 'You're from Baltimore!' like this is this scary, dangerous, this nutty place. But really, it's girls like us in the city that are full of hope, talent, want to go to college, want to be great, want to be first generation [to go to college], want to break the chain and set the tone for the upcoming students."
Yes, she says, she and her friends do see themselves as ambassadors for their city, for their school and for their classmates. And, Giraldo adds with a smile and a glance across the room, "It is super cool to be an ambassador."
Lipitz, who speaks with something like a mentor's pride about the young women featured in "Step," admits her concern for their physical and emotional well-being sometimes colored her filmmaking. If someone needed a hug while the cameras were rolling, she'd give it to them; if a moment turned awkward and some privacy was needed, she'd turn the cameras off.
"It has always been more important to me that the girls be OK, above any sort of filmmaking," she says. "I love them and I wanted the best for them. And if that wasn't always best for the movie, that was OK with me."
Right now, with the accolades coming in and the film's national release just days away, Lipitz sees a bright future for the Lethal Ladies, as well as for the city that can call them its own.
"I feel like the people here are saving it," she says of her hometown. "The school's saving it. The people within the school, these mothers, these college counselors, the teachers, the community coming together to help these kids overcome the circumstances they are in … you're seeing all of these amazing people in Baltimore, who are part of this community, who are coming together to help each other."