What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
The late rapper Tupac Shakur’s poem “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” declares long live the rose that grew from concrete, because though it had damaged petals, it also had the tenacity to reach the sun. In like fashion, Step is a documentary that celebrates the roses growing among the concrete of Baltimore. It is about black women, young and old, working together to beat the odds. It is about the struggle of being a young black woman in America amidst the chaos and injustices of the inner city. But mostly, it is about how to make music during the difficult seasons of life and have joy and hope amid injustice, chaos, and brokenness.
Step follows the three young women who are members of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. When Blessin Giraldo, Tayla Solomon, and Cori Grainger were sixth graders, Blessin convinced the administration to create a step team. The “Lethal Ladies of BLSYW,” as the step team is called, serves as a creative outlet and emotional support system for the young women involved. Their coach, Gari McIntyre, is in her first year as step coach for a team that has not won any major step competitions in a few years. For Blessin, Cori, and Tayla, this is their last chance before graduation to leave as champions.How do we make music during the difficult seasons of life and have joy and hope amid injustice, chaos, and brokenness? Step shows us.
Blessin, Cori, and Tayla compete with the step team and navigate the challenges of their senior year of high school, giving viewers a snapshot of their lives. Cori Grainger is a bright, shy, young woman. For her, the step team is a chance to bring out the more fierce and dramatic elements of her personality. Cori is on track to be class valedictorian and dreams of going to Johns Hopkins University. She needs a full scholarship to attend because despite having a mother she describes as a “magic wand,” her family cannot afford to pay for her to go to college. She sometimes must do her homework by candlelight when the electricity in her family’s apartment is shut off.
Tayla is sarcastic, but well liked by her teammates. She’s being raised by her fun but slightly overprotective mom, Maisha, who works the overnight shift as a corrections officer—which means she can be present at every step practice. Maisha was a teen mother and is raising Tayla alone, but she’s hopeful and dreams for her daughter to go to college and have more opportunity in life. Maisha also serves as a surrogate mother to the entire step team, as she too understands that many of the kids growing up in Baltimore are lost and lack hope. When Blessin is kicked out of practice over conflict with Tayla and her friends, Maisha steps into remind her daughter that she does not know what Blessin is facing at home and encourages her to show empathy and forgive Blessin.
Blessin is a star. She is charismatic and extremely talented (she helps choreograph most of the step routines), but she’s struggling academically, her chronic tardiness threatens her grades, and her home life is by far the most chaotic. Her mother, Geneva, suffers from depression so while she wants her daughter to escape poverty and life in inner-city Baltimore, she does not possess the ability to support her daughter in the way Cori and Tayla are by their mothers. It is through Blessin that we see the tug of war between hope and despair threatening the futures of the children of Baltimore city. Blessin loves step, and she wants to go to college, but she struggles to apply herself and doubts her ability to overcome her circumstances.
The step team bonds these three extraordinary young women. The team teaches them discipline even as it anchors them and gives them a sense of belonging in a city still recovering from the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder. (In one scene, the girls perform a powerful Black Lives Matter themed step routine.) Coach McIntyre is hard on the ladies of Step, but she is not just teaching them routines. She knows the struggles they are facing as young black women from impoverished families, as she grew up on the same street as Freddie Gray. But more than just understanding, she is also trying to give these young women tools to survive. Coach McIntyre knows how small the margin of error is for young people to survive and thrive. And that’s why step practice is key: it’s a place to leave the trouble of the world behind and find joy in “making music with their bodies.”
The movie culminates with the Lethal Ladies of BLSYW winning a huge step competition, followed by Cori, Blessin, and Tayla’s high school graduation. We learn that Cori graduates as the class valedictorian and gets her full-ride scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. Tayla gets accepted to Alabama A&M, a historically black college, miles away from her mom, but Maisha does not care as she’s proud of her daughter. Blessin, whose high school graduation and college acceptance were questionable, does indeed graduate, and thanks to the tear-filled advocacy of the BLSYW college counselor, Paula Dofat, Blessin gets accepted to a bridge program at Coppin State University. Blessin also returns to BLSYW after graduation to serve as the assistant step team coach.
Step is in many ways the perfect movie for this moment in history. It’s easy to look to movies like Detroit or Crown Heights, movies about injustice and police brutality, and see the obvious parallels to the recently stayed execution of Marcellus Williams or deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Anthony Lamar Smith. Detroit and Crown Heights are important movies, but in many ways, they confirm what many already know; in other ways, they create a sense of despair over the ways history seems to repeat itself.
Losing heart is common—even for Christians—amid relentless chaos, brokenness, and injustice. When generations face difficulty and oppression, it can be nearly impossible to catch a breath and rise above. This is when films like Step remind us that, yes, we are hard-pressed on all sides, yet not crushed; we may be perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:8). There is hope in the ruins; there are glimpses of change. There is evidence that we are not forgotten. Faith of this sort is seen in Step especially after Cori finds out she has a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins. We see her family in church, her mother’s arms outstretched, tears in her eyes, singing “How Great Is Our God.” God had not forgotten Cori or her family. And He has not forgotten us.
It is tempting in this present age to despair, to give in to cynicism and give up on hope, but the story of these three young black women, their mentors, and their mothers working together to beat the odds is a wonderful reminder that it is possible to have joy under the most difficult of circumstances. Despite their surroundings, the stars of Step fight for joy and hope and figure out ways to persevere under the system that takes every opportunity to tell them that black lives do not matter. It truly is about “joy as resistance,” a phrase made popular by educator and activist Brittany Packnett. Such joy is what we read of in The Message translation of 2 Corinthians 4, which begins, “Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times.” And it concludes with, “We’re not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.”
We are not captive to our circumstances when God is making new life in and around us. Our joy is not circumstantial, it is based on something deeper—on knowing that God is in control of our circumstances, that He is working even the hard stuff for our good. Despite how things seem, we can choose to make music because we are His children, He is the giver of manna from heaven and water from the rock, and the ultimate battle has already been won. We can choose to persevere through difficulty, to pick up our crosses and press on, and to allow joy of the Lord be our strength.
Step is a movie about young black women from impoverished backgrounds who hope and have joy and how hope and joy refuse to let the circumstances of life have the final say. They are the roses that grew from concrete. And they are teaching us what it means to flourish even in the brokenness of this world.
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