There are so many movies about how a ragtag group of moderately-talented individuals has to come together as a team or unit to win the big game or whatever that it’s a genre unto itself. Into that field steps this week’s Netflix-original Step Sisters. Megan Echikunwoke plays Jamilah, a driven college senior with ambitions to attend Harvard Law School and embark on a gloriously-successful career. She’s put everything else on hold, including participating in the step dance team she’s long been a part of.
Her plans are interrupted when a sorority full of entitled white girls embarrasses the university she attends. Jamilah is coerced by the dean of the school to help rehabilitate the school’s image by turning those sorority girls into a champion dance crew of their own. While she has an ally in Beth (Eden Sher from “The Middle”), that’s about the only one she can count on. Jamilah hides her coaching activities from her friends and is frustrated by the lack of rhythm, coordination and teamwork by the girls she’s trying to help.
Netflix’s key art for the movie isn’t so much concerned with selling you on the attributes of this movie as much as selling you on the involvement of people who have been behind some other similar films. So the director of Drumline, the choreographer of Pitch Perfect and the producers of Dear White People and Straight Outta Compton are all name-dropped here as major value prop messages.
Aside from that the image on the poster does make it clear we’re dealing with dance in some regard. Two people, one white and one black, stand opposite each other with only their heavy dance shoes and a little bit of skin showing. “Stomp it like it’s hot” is placed between those shoes, conveying in some way that the movie is about dance.
We see the Thetas, Jamilah’s original crew, performing as the trailer starts and hear how she’s sitting this season out to try to get into Harvard. When the other sorority is caught on camera in a compromising situation, the Dean tells Jamilah that if she helps out by turning the girls into all-star dancers he’ll make sure Harvard lets her in. She’s reluctant and finds the girls she’s coaching even more so, unwilling to work together. While hiding her activities from her friends she finally gets all the crazy white girls to get their act together and prove everyone wrong.
It’s pretty funny, if a bit slight, and most importantly seems very similar to the movies mentioned on the poster that comes from the various writers and producers. There’s a little Pitch, a little Dear and a little of everything else. Most notably, this isn’t about white people going out on their own and co-opting a black activity or cultural element, it’s about a black person bringing that culture to the white people. It’s a missionary-type story, only with the stereotypical racial roles reversed. No, it doesn’t look all that groundbreaking or anything but it seems like a pleasant enough way to spend the better part of two hours and doesn’t appear to be overly condescending or offensive, so no harm, no foul here.
Online and Social
There were actually a few social profiles created to promote the movie. The Twitter account was pretty active in RTing members of the cast and sharing other marketing updates. A Snapchat profile did likewise, hoping to appeal to that app’s demographics. Both of those are older accounts that were, based on the dates of the posts, created by Broad Green Pictures and then taken over by Netflix, who just posted once or twice. Most of the posts are from 2016 and show production still underway.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nope, as is the norm with Netflix.
Media and Publicity
There hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz or publicity around the movie. It was originally meant to be released by Broad Green Pictures, who announced the cast to plenty of coverage, before that company shut down pretty much all of its productions in the wake of financial issues. Netflix picked it up late last year and spiked the planned March theatrical release in favor of giving it a streaming debut now.
Sher spoke about it every now again but was mostly busy promoting the final season of “The Middle” that’s going on right now.
Also a big name but also occupied doing other things was producer Lena Waithe (who really should have been included by name on the poster), who was already riding high after winning an Emmy for writing a standout episode of “Master of None” and who is currently receiving all kinds of attention for creating the Showtime series “The Chi.” She spoke about the movie a few times in profiles like this and that, but not much else.
Some other members of the cast did a few interviews back in 2016 during production but that seems to be about it.
I’ll more or less repeat what I said when discussing the trailer and say that this looks…alright. It would be easy to get this kind of story wrong and make it one that’s absolutely about fixing a damaged reputation and learning an important life lesson only through cultural appropriation. That the campaign makes it seem like not that is, I think, a testament to the talents of the people involved and their desire to avoid such a glaring danger zone.
Let’s also be clear about this: We can talk about the artistic quality of the film itself and do so necessarily. We shouldn’t, though, overlook how this is another example of Netflix saving a film that was destined for the scrap heap. That’s good enough and shows how it is doing at least to some extent what the major studios have given up on. It’s a whole other level when you consider it’s a movie made by and featuring a diverse and inclusive group of creators and actors, giving voice to a perspective that is still not considered “mainstream” enough by some parties to warrant attention. That’s worth something in and of itself.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.