Tough inspirational inner-city documentaries tend to find themselves lined up alongside 1994’s Hoop Dreams, in which Steve James presented the lives of two Chicago teens (William Gates and Arthur Agee) as they stared down the long odds of transitioning from high school to collegiate basketball on the way toward their ultimate goal of one day playing professionally. That film documented the perilous realities kids face when they invest so much in an elusive dream that countless others are constantly pursuing at the same time — every day and week of the year.
The latest iteration of this truly American story arrives courtesy of Amanda Lipitz, whose Step captured a Special Jury Prize (Inspirational Filmmaking — Documentary) at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Her film tracks several female students as they enter their senior year at a Baltimore inner city high school where they perform and compete as part of a step dance team. The elder team members, fiercely competitive and ferociously talented, want to exit this phase of their step careers as winners. But they must also overcome challenges as they seek to establish clear pathways toward the future.
One of the poignant differences between Hoop Dreams and Step has to do with outside focus. Baltimore finds itself caught up in the issue of police practices that threaten to rip apart our nation. The suspicious death of Freddie Gray, while in police custody, and the resulting trial (and acquittals) have strained relations between the police and the community to the breaking point. As elsewhere across the country, it has sparked ongoing protests and media debates there.
The girls of the step team don’t shy away from tackling the issue in their performances. They create routines that defiantly address the Black Lives Matter movement. They embrace roles for themselves as advocates, seeing themselves as citizens with personal stakes in the realities of life on the streets. They dance as if their movements can and should provide fuel for a righteous fire that is bigger and more meaningful than their individual situations. (Opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre.) (PG) Grade: A