by director Amanda Lipitz
I never thought I would be writing this letter. That my documentary about 19 young women from Baltimore would be accepted into Sundance, bought by one of the most prestigious studios and delivered to movie screens across the country. I don’t think anyone jumps into a documentary thinking any of this will happen. I am often asked who I made this film for and the simple answer is: for the young women in it. All I ever wanted was for them to be proud of it. That guided me throughout the entire process.
I have for many years been making shorts about first generation students going to college. These short films have through the years elicited more than a few queries about the possibility of finding the right story for a feature documentary. I always shrugged them off, preferring to keep making these shorts as a side gig to my main career as a Broadway musical producer.
Then I met The Lethal Ladies.
The Step Team from the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women blew my mind from day one. Here was a group of young women—all different—but all step-dancing together, pushing each other, supporting one another, trying to be the first in their families to go to college, to be the founding class of a groundbreaking school.
I met these young women when they were eleven years old—everyone from the hard-charging, stop at nothing class Valedictorian, Cori, whose single mother had her when she was 16, to the stunning and uber-talented but equally troubled team captain, Blessin. And then there’s Tayla—a “notch down from Beyoncé”—with her mother always at practices cheering the girls on.
In a great musical, the characters can’t speak anymore so they sing to express their hopes, dreams and fears. I saw this group of girls doing the exact same thing through Step. I met with the girls and their families and they agreed to allow me to film their lives. In their junior year, Freddie Gray was killed, sparking riots in the city. I watched my hometown of Baltimore become labeled as the “most dangerous city in America.” I watched it burn on live television. I didn’t like what the world was seeing. I knew something different—a hopefulness embodied beautifully by the girls on this Step team. As Blessin puts it, “Step is life.” And so it is for them.
For me this film functions as any proper musical does—the music fuels us, the lyrics propel us, the rise and fall and rise again of our characters keeps us rooting for them until the bitter end. I was inspired by everything from Reservoir Dogs to Fame to Rocky—for me the college admissions process was a song and dance and the words they chanted when they Stepped were the lyrics to the song. A contagious beat that never stops revealing to us who these young women, their teachers, and their mothers truly are. Joyous, brave, strong, funny, and honest—even against insurmountable odds.
It has been a privilege and honor to tell the stories of these young women.