The Broad Green Pictures production of the comedy Step Sisters comes with an impressive team featuring director Charles Stone III (Drumline), writer Chuck Hayward (Dear White People) and Emmy-winning producer Lena Waithe (Master of None). According to Deadline, the project in 2015 was sitting with Broad Green Pictures under the title Ain’t No Half-Steppin’. Now, Netflix will release the film January 19th on its streaming service after it struck a deal with the Los Angeles Media Fund.
The film stars Megalyn Echikunwoke, Lyndon Smith, Eden Sher, Alessandra Torresani, Marque Richardson, Matt McGory, Naturi Naughton and Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Theta sorority sister Jamilah Bisho (Echikunwoke) has her eyes set on Harvard Law School and is willing to do just about anything to get there. After Jamilah’s parents reject her request for a legacy endorsement into Harvard, she takes matters into her own hands. She reaches out to her boss Dean Berman (Robert Curtis Brown) and, with a simple twist of fate, a major publicity faux pas occurs on campus with the white sorority Sigma Beta Beta. The Dean is desperate to clean up the image of SBB and make them look like positive contributors to the community, and comes up with a hare-brained idea to have Jamilah teach the insipidly and off-beat white girls how to step.
The plot of a Black sorority sister once President of her own sorority taking the time out of her busy schedule to teach a white sorority how to learn how to step (which I can only imagine is not something you can do overnight) is already a cringe-worthy premise. The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that, optics-wise, this is problematic. There are moments when Jamilah is referred to as “the help” which is an accurate description of her role to these women. Jamilah doesn’t benefit from the relationships with the women of Sigma Beta Beta, she’s only there to serve her own self-interests (getting into Harvard), while they benefit from their own self-aggrandizement (keeping their charter). I wish there was something substantive that came out of the lessons learned by all parties here but, unfortunately, the attempts for redemption here are lacking. The only thing that comes close is a scene between Jamilah and Saundra (Nia Jervier).
There are some funny scenes, but not many. The attempts at comedy made throughout the film usually fall flat, at times leaving you wondering if you could have delivered a better punchline than what the writer did. Matt McGorry—who plays Jamilah’s white woke boyfriend Dane—somehow invokes the spirit of his character Asher Millstone from ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder into this role. Dane is an African-American studies and political science major who’s super-conscious when it comes to race and marginalized voices. One can also say he also invokes the spirit of Chuck Hayward’s Dear White People through the character of Gabe Mitchell. He’s basically the super white woke ally with a Black girlfriend. This formula was used before in both the Dear White People film and Netflix series. It’s later revealed that Jamilah has personal hangups about her own Blackness, and somehow her relationship with Dane was used to compensate for that. There’s an interesting relationship that brews between Jamilah and Kevin (Marque Richardson) and even though she’s with the white Malcolm X, she shares great chemistry with Kevin and their attraction is palpable.
Without giving away too many plot details, and while most of the writing and the script itself is very one-dimensional, the character of Saundra played by Nia Jervier had a compelling arc that evolves later in the film. Saundra is the only Black sorority sister of Sigma Beta Beta and is perceived as the “Black girl who acts white.” We later find out why she joined Sigma Beta Beta, which was a moment that I personally connected with, and I wish there was more to be explored with her narrative.
Megalyn Echikunwoke definitely has potential to be a great romcom star, but sadly isn’t given enough solid comedic material to make the mark in this picture. Jamilah’s character is a tough egg to crack and I couldn’t quite understand what kind of person she was. One moment we think that she’s self-indulgent and hedonistic in her methods of getting what she wants. She keeps secrets, betrays the trust of others and looks for the easy way out of things. However, when she trains the white soros to learn how to step, she’s patient and willing to endure their wild and idiosyncratic personalities to help them each find their skill in step. Is she a persistent woman or is she overly ambitious and willing to cut corners to achieve her goals? I couldn’t quite figure that out.
This film will remind you so much of other romcoms and other comedies you’ve watched that you’ll be overwhelmed with deja vu. There are scenes that replicate moments in films like Dear White People, Mean Girls, Bring It On, and Say Anything. There is literally a scene that is from the popular boombox scene that plays out in Step Sisters—minus Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” song. We get another popular 80s song to replace it instead…not all bad.
Step Sisters does not fall short of its racial tropes and the one gay character in the film uses his sexual escapades with his partner as a comedic device—not a stereotype at all. I also cringed a bit when Jamilah found a joke towards white people to be “racist” and her white boyfriend had to educate her on what racism actually is. I’m pretty certain the moment was supposed to be a punchline, but it just missed the mark and didn’t deliver. This happens often throughout the movie.
Step Sisters is a film that I think viewers will either love or love to hate. There could be those in between that just won’t care either way, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. I don’t completely dislike this film, because I thought both Megalyn and Marque were strong performers in this story. I also connected with the Saundra character here and there. I would have preferred a bit more development with Aisha, the leader of the Thetas played by Naturi Naughton, who acts more like an antagonist to Jamilah’s story than a fellow sorority sister.
Step Sisters lacks the willingness to be creative and provide something unique and unexpected its audience. On a review scale of Yvette Nicole Brown’s twitter clapbacks to Bossip headlines, I give this movie a solid 2…as in, 2 steps back into production development hell where this idea came from. If you decide to watch this, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Step Sisters is available on Netflix January 19th with a total running time of 104 minutes.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online community for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She's the primary film critic for BGN and is a member of the Critics Choice Association.