If Netflix’s new comedy Step Sisters is guilty of anything, it’s being too self-aware.
Let’s back up. For anyone not familiar, Step Sisters is a flick about a black sorority step team whose leader, in an effort to get a recommendation letter to Harvard, attempts to help a misbehaving white sorority learn to stomp in order to repair their image. Sure, there’s a lot going on in that premise and if, like me and others, you watched the trailer for this film and automatically labeled it problematic you wouldn’t be wrong.
If, also like me, you saw names attached to it like Charles Stone III (Drumline), Chuck Hayward (Dear White People), and Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi) and thought, “Huh, I’ll give it a chance,” I can guarantee two things: 1) this movie will not live up to the expectations associated with those talented people and 2) it’s not as eye-rollingly tone deaf and performatively woke as the trailer makes it out to be.
In fact, if Step Sisters suffers from anything it’s a case of too much woke — a phrase I just invented that I desperately hope to never utter again in my writing career. The movie is so consumed with calling itself out on tropes and stereotypes that usually run rampant in these sorts of stories that it ends up falling into the traps it painstakingly points out to its audience.
Case in point: its lead character, an educated, successful, self-confident young black woman who seems to have it all when we first meet her. Jamilah’s (Megalyn Echikunwoke) part of one of the best step teams in the world of college stepping, she’s got a sorority of sisters who are refreshingly honest and supportive of one another, she’s got a white boyfriend who cooks her dinner and apologizes for his people’s systemic oppression of black folks every chance he gets, and she’s planning a future studying law at Harvard.
Of course, because we can’t have this be a story about a young black woman’s journey to discovering herself without throwing a bit of salt in, white women show up, and they show up fairly soon in a film which, I swear I thought marketed itself as a story about black women.
Jamilah, who preaches perfection over excellence, isn’t driven enough to warrant a legacy endorsement from her parents, who also went to Harvard, so she’s forced to accept the dean’s quid-pro-quo offer to rehabilitate Sigma Beta Beta after one of its members is caught having sex in the bushes on campus. (I know that sounds ridiculous but that actually happens in this movie.) Dean Berman (Robert Curtis Brown) is a gay man who overshares and the film constantly feels like it has to remind us of his queerness but there’s not enough space here to devote to all of my issues with his character and effectively speak to the bigger problems of race, appropriation, and white woman syndrome in this thing so I’ll just send one up to Dean Berman now. R.I.P. the missed opportunity to portray a gay man in a respectful, realistic way. You were gone before you even had the chance to live.
Back to the plot. Obviously, working with these catty, spiteful, bitches – really, there’s just no other word for the typecasts they fall victim to – would ruin Jamilah’s street cred so she keeps that on the down low and it blows up in her face later. Meanwhile, her coaching these rhythm-deficient sisters ends up helping them to bond with one another, get their acts together, and actually do some good for other people.
So yes, at its core, this is another look at how it always falls to black women to save white women, on screen and, let’s be honest, in real life.
Despite that tired trope, there are a handful of things about this movie that come close to saving the film. It damn sure isn’t the stepping. I don’t care how much “soul” you try to give these white girls, watching them stomp will either have you laughing, cringing, or a mixture of both. That’s because it’s ridiculous to think that a group of women with no prior dance experience could magically pick up the kind of complicated rhythmic routines required to allow them to compete with dancers who’ve been training for years in that same discipline. But watching them try is fun, and watching some of their characters — like a tough-as-nails member who turns out to be a foster kid who strips to earn her way through college or an accomplished black woman who joined a white sorority because she felt discriminated against by women of her own race — proves interesting and, shockingly, enlightening.
And Echikunwoke, whose Jamilah is a confusing mess of archetypes that I never quite identified with or understood, is worthy of her own film. She’s charming and able to pull humor out of the dullest dialogue. There are bits that hit – watching an all-male step team try to toughen up these white girls is hilarious, as is watching Matt McGorry play a feminist ally who isn’t aware of how condescending and insulting his PC behavior actually.(If anything, I’d suggest all white guys watch this film just to learn a lesson in how not to behave from him.)
But the laughs are few and far between in a film that labels itself as a comedy and the plots are recycled, which doesn’t make them modern, it just makes them feel more outdated. It’s 2018, we don’t need to see an accomplished black woman risk her academic career and social life to help a bunch of privileged white girls learn the importance of friendship – we also don’t need a film that furthers the “us” or “them” mindset when it comes to race but that’s a whole can of metaphorical worms that will not be opened here. And for a film that hammers home this idea of cultural appropriation – which is a topic worthy of exploring but one that isn’t done effectively here – it’s disconcerting to see how dismissive the film is about any race other than the two “warring” ones that take precedence here. (At one point, a black, female step team dressed in cheongsam-style tops responds to confrontation by another group by obnoxiously blocking them with their Chinese fans.)
Step Sisters doesn’t fall flat because it fails to address its problems, it botches its landing by treating them with too heavy a hand to be funny, inventive, or spark any meaningful, progressive conversation about them.