We had high hopes when we saw Netflix had acquired the rights to a new project from a talented ensemble of behind-the-scenes talent: Chuck Hayward (Dear White People), Charles Stone III (Drumline), and Lena Waithe (The Chi). We even were confident when we heard the premise of said project: A Black sorority member and aspiring Harvard Law student Jamilah (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke) would teach an all-white Greek organization (the SBBs) how to step in order to save their chapter. Sure, it kind of sounded like Bring It On: Sorority Edition or a strange riff on Pitch Perfect, but maybe it would have some inspired themes around ideas of race, cultural appropriation and, ultimately, respect. There would be no way that these brilliant creators would tackle such an unusual concept and not have a profound and unique message behind it.
Sadly, we were disappointed; Step Sisters didn’t exactly get there for us.
Built on a shaky premise to begin with, Step Sisters never had the impact it needed to really make a statement. Was it enjoyable at times? Sure. Did it have its moments? It certainly did. But did we walk away feeling as if this was a smart commentary on a very fundamental divide in the black and white college experiences? Not at all.
But in the interest of staying somewhat positive, let’s start with the good.
Though some of Step Sisters‘ cast was nauseatingly bland, expected, or, frankly, annoying, we did love that How To Get Away With Murder‘s Matt McGorry had some great screen time. Playing Jamilah’s white boyfriend Dane, McGorry was great in satirically showcasing overcompensation and white guilt. At every turn Dane is trying to prove that he is woke, understands the struggle, and is constantly apologizing for the transgressions of his ancestors. As Black and brown people, we have always met those kind of white people and it was certainly entertaining to see that brought to life in such an exaggerated and extra context.
When Dane says to Jamilah that she’s essentially “playing Debbie Allen at the Barbie Dream House,” we had a glimmer of hope that the movie would be full of those types of snarky comments that made us giggle but speak to a larger truth. Unfortunately, those were few and far between. While we didn’t love lead character Jamilah, we do give Echikunwoke credit for doing the best she could with the role. She was likeable, fun, gorgeous and definitely primed for bigger and better things. And of course, we loved Jamilah’s adorable boo crush Kevin (played by Marque Richardson). With a swagger that made us smile from ear to ear, he was a breath of fresh air throughout the movie.
We’ll tackle plot in our less flattering section of this review, but there were definitely moments that made us feel that we hadn’t wasted an hour and 48 minutes. All of these standout scenes, however, seemed to have one thing in common: They were among the Black cast members and spoke directly to race relations within the black and brown communities. From Jamilah having a pointed conversation with the lone Black SBB sorority member who confides in her that she wasn’t accepted by the Thetas because she wasn’t Black enough to Jamilah having a tense conversation with her friend and soror about cultural appropriation and the inability of races to “own” activities, art forms, etc., these conversations were what we expected and were excited about in this movie. But again these moments weren’t really enough to push through and make this flick have the impact and staying power it could have had, which brings us to the not so good points about this show.
When all is said and done Step Sisters‘s plot was never supposed to be a serious conversation about race. We knew it was a comedy, we knew it was going to be a little off the cuff, but what we hoped was that much in the way that Dear White People, Black-ish, and other such works use comedy to really educate about the Black experience, Step Sisters would do the same. Instead it felt too formulaic and ill-conceived. Here we have a beautiful, successful young Black woman who risks her reputation and future to help a bunch of white sorority members use a traditionally Black art form to benefit their cause. And if that wasn’t icky enough, the movie doesn’t actually confront the nuance of cultural appropriation in any meaningful form. Instead it seems like a passing theme that’s only confronted in a few brief scenes.
And, here’s the sour cherry on top of the cultural appropriation discussion debacle that was this movie. During the final stretch of the film, the big step showcase where the country’s best teams are gathered to show their stuff, one of the sororities has its members dress up in traditional Chinese attire and short black wigs for their performance. Maybe it was meant to show cultural appropriation on both sides of the divide, but that short scene stuck out like a sore thumb. Again, it might seem as if we were asking a lot from a Netflix comedy to have an inspired take on this subject matter, but any work dealing with race should have a purpose and progress the conversation, not just comment on it in a superficial way. This wasn’t supposed to be a revolutionary entertainment experience. However, we don’t think we’re wrong in expecting that if you’re going to go down the road of a been there, done that plot line of white people learn about black people, from a black person in a non-threatening way and everyone is happy and friends at the end of it that along the way something new is brought to the table.
It’s 2018. Discussions of race have only increased and as a society we are looking for smart takes on it. “Get Out,” the shining example of an elevated discussion of race and ignorance, is the gold standard and few films will live up to that. We know that, we understand it. But the thought behind it is what should be leading projects in which topics like cultural appropriation and race relations are an underlying current. At the end of the day when it comes to Step Sisters, we’re kind of left with what was the point. Why did all of these talented people come together to create something that really says nothing? It had its moments for sure, but there could have been much more.
Better luck next time, Netflix.