Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 18, 2020 10:24 pm 
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OPENS AUGUST 7-21, 2020 - Two Week Engagement at Roxie Virtual Cinema

Shaping young lives with drums and pride in Louisville

With love and warmth this documentary tells the story of "Mr. White," Ed "Nardie" White, who created and for three decades has led the River City Drum Corps in Louisville, Kentucky, an African American group of young choral drummers ages 4 to 20. It also depicts his turning over the reins to his successor, Albert Shumake, and it tells about the role of Nardie's late wife Zambia Nkrumah; Albert contributes to the celebration of her life. And we look at the legacy of participating, looking in on graduating drum corps high schoolers Imani and Jailen, who are going on to college.

The children start out by building their own initial drums, made from big plastic pipes, stretched with cowhide. Later they graduate to a great variety of marching drum and bugle corps style drums, played with an African beat. They travel all over the South participating in drum events. The film follows them on the bus and captures a sense of the fun. But it's also clear that Nardie is a stern disciplinarian who demands attention and dedication.

The aim of River City Drum Corps is to help young people navigate the difficult path through the drugs, alcohol, violence and frustration of poor black Louisville, the "West End," by providing discipline, motivation, and a sense of the beauty and richness of their African roots. We see the high school graduation of Imani and Jailen, and hear the opening of the class president's speech, in which he quotes a poem about a rose that grew from a crack in the concrete, proving nature's law is wrong.

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams,
it learned to breathe fresh air.
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else ever cared.

Then he surprises by saying "That is a quote from Tupac."

The handsome boy links this image not only to the middle passage of slaves taken from Africa to America but to his own experience: "Who would have ever thought a young black male from Thirty-fourth and Jefferson would be the class president of 400-plus."

This awesome speech was given by Jailen, Nardie's boy from River City Drum Corps. He's the caliber of old souls the group gathers. It's a measure of the warmth and intimacy of the film that it follows Jailen to the barbershop beforehand to see him getting "groomed" for graduation, and the barber reminisces about his earlier years. (He went on to become president of his class at Tennessee State University.)

Albert comments to Nardie, smiling, and hugging, after the event, "I've never seen too many high school commencement speeches that start with a Tupac poem, and go into the middle passage, and you shout your 'hood out. . . all in your speech!" It is a brilliant use of the image, the product of a keen mind and a perceptive heart.

The chief voice, of course, is Nardie, who reveals that years ago he had another "pre-drum corps" life as an excellent black and white portrait photographer (we glimpse some of the handsome prints), but when he headed the corps, he had to devote all his time to drumming. He bewails the community's emphasis on athletics over all else and the voices that tell young people, him too, "a black man can't make any money being an artist." We visit black sculptor Ed Hamilton, who was encouraged by a teacher who saw in a small figure in clay he'd shaped that he had a gift for realistic modeling, and that encouragement led him to become a sculptor of monuments. These include a bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln with panels depicting slaves and the letter from Lincoln about how disturbed he was seeing slaves chained together on a boat - the seed core of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"This film tells the story about how arts education can sustain us in even the most difficult circumstances," say Johnson and Flatté. "Through GOOD DOCS, teachers can use this film to enhance distance learning, and students can experience the story’s inspiration even while they are learning from home."


River City Drumbeat, 95 mins., debuted at DOC NYC Nov. 2019, also featured at Miami, San Francisco, and SXSW. Produced by Owsley Brown Presents, it is now available for educational streaming through GOOD DOCS at You can buy a 14-day streaming link for your favorite school for $129.00. The film may now be available t the public online: it runs Aug. 7-21, 2020 on Roxie Virtual Theater.



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