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Broadway producer sits in director’s chair for new film

+Tony+Award+winner+Amanda+Lipitz+directs+STEP.
 Tony Award winner Amanda Lipitz directs STEP.

Tony Award winner Amanda Lipitz directs STEP.

Sam Boggs

Sam Boggs

Tony Award winner Amanda Lipitz directs STEP.

Trevor Tyle, Staff Reporter

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When one has produced a Broadway musical by the age of 24, created a television series by 27, and received a Tony Award by 35, it does not seem like life can get much better. However, at 36, filmmaker Amanda Lipitz has accomplished all of this and more, and now, she is quite literally stepping into a whole new territory, proving that, for her, the only way is up.

Her latest film, “STEP,” is a documentary that follows an all-girls high school step team in Baltimore, chronicling their personal struggles as they strive for two major goals—a victory at the Bowie State University step competition and, more importantly, their acceptances into college. Step is a dance style that originated in Africa and combines foot-stomping, chanting and clapping.

The film has already won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Inspirational Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, and now Lipitz has her eye set on breaking box office records with her first major directorial debut.

Of the film’s success prior to its release, Lipitz says she and the film’s stars—Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger and Tayla Solomon—are “really humbled and grateful [to be] inspiring young people and their families to keep going and not to be embarrassed by any circumstance that you may come from or that you may have encountered.”

The success extends beyond critical acclaim. Speaking about audiences’ positive reception to the film at recent pre-screenings, Lipitz admitted that, “It gives me a lot of hope and joy for our communities and our American cities [for] where we can go together as a country when we find common ground.”

Despite the film’s relatively short runtime, which falls just short of an hour-and-a-half, it tackles a variety of social issues that are expected to inspire viewers—namely black pride, female empowerment and the importance of education. Lipitz says that the support system provided by the team allowed the girls in the film to face these issues head-on, emphasizing themes of “teamwork, resilience, using your voice, speaking out, listening to those around you and sticking together.”

One of the events that directly influenced these themes was the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man, while in police custody in Baltimore last year. As the film takes place in her hometown of Baltimore, Lipitz felt it was extremely important to shed light on Gray’s death in order to “change the conversation about Baltimore.”

“I think, the flame was getting turned up in Baltimore when we started [filming], and then it went all the way up when Freddie Gray was killed, and it was a horrible tragedy,” she said. “I watched my hometown burn on national television, and it was [the girls’] junior year, and their senior year was looming, and we just knew we had to tell the story and tell it now.”

The story Lipitz told extended even closer to home than Gray’s death. Having met the Lethal Ladies of Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) Step Team when most of them were very young, she said that she had formed a bond with many of the girls. Lipitz argues that focusing on the film’s three main stars was not a conscious decision, and that she could have made an equally compelling film focusing on other members of the team; however, her connections with Giraldo, Solomon and Grainger ultimately made them the leads of the film.

She said Giraldo, who founded the BLSYW Step Team, almost instantly connected with her after she confidently admitted to the Broadway producer that, “I’m gonna be on Broadway” at just eleven years old. Lipitz said she became a sort of mentor to the young girl, whose academic struggles are prominently focused on in the film. Grainger foiled Giraldo in a way, as Lipitz noted that she was at the top of her class, but remained “shy and mild-mannered” until she “came alive” when she started stepping. Likewise, Solomon, Lipitz said, “came out of nowhere to be one of the best steppers on the team” after joining in ninth grade, much later than the other girls.

The girls’ stories allowed Lipitz to convey a message about education as well. Although the film’s emphasis on the importance of college education is quite clear, Lipitz offered some advice of her own to college students struggling academically and financially, citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” speech as her own inspiration for pushing through academic hardships.

“No matter what goes on, no matter how many people tell you ‘no,’ no matter how many doors get slammed in your face or, you know, you are discouraged, don’t be. Keep going, have a plan,” she said. “Whatever that is, have a plan, work for it and don’t let anything stop you.”

“STEP” arrives in theaters August 4.

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