Don’t be misled by condescending, semi-enthusiastic reviews. This documentary is a miracle. It’s playing all weekend at CCA here in Santa Fe, but wherever you live, search for it, go to it, even if it means a big change in your plans. A miracle deserves that, and this documentary is a miracle.
Step show us Baltimore’s Leadership School for Young Women. This school reverses the cynicism and despair that afflicts many of us at the thought—if we ever bother to think it—of the young black women living in Baltimore’s inner city or the desperate places in all of our cities.
These are the young women who may drop out of high school, can’t afford the obscene tuition at colleges—as much as fifty thousand a year—get pregnant too young and may never even dare to believe they can live a life different from the lives of the women in the generations before them.
Some of these women, the mothers, aunts and cousins, help to propel their gifted but unfocused daughters into the rigorous academic training the school offers—with the incentive of total emotional support, honesty, and the invigorating, life-enhancing rhythms and movements of their Step classes.
Music pounding, they leap and stamp, shouting out the mantras of their liberation from the bonds of despair: WE ARE THE LETHAL LADIES OF BALTIMORE’S LEADERSHIP SCHOOL OF YOUNG WOMEN—the chant of the first class to graduate, in 2016. One hundred percent were accepted at college.
This is not a soothing syrup treatment of the topic: one young woman has to move out of her family’s chaotic household where there is often no food in the refrigerator in order to pull up her failing grades. Girls who fail to perform are chastised by the Step coach and made to perform demanding physical exercises. One, distracted by the attentions of what her mother calls “that little boy” almost drops out. At ever crisis or near crisis, there is a huddle of supporting—and chastising—black women who won’t accept excuses, self-pity or failing grades. They prepare these young women for the tough world: not of the streets, but of the alien, nearly all-white colleges they will attend, where admission of African-American students stands at nine percent, stuck there as it has been since 1980 and the start of Affirmative Action.
All of us lean on excuses, even those privileged as I am by talent and money, that “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
These African-American girls show us the persistence, discipline, and sheer joy we must find somehow in our own lives.