A New Drumline Doc Keeps Things Positive and Wholesome

River City Drumbeat

All throughout River City Drumbeat, the subjects of the new documentary constantly present their hometown, Louisville, Ky., as a danger zone. It’s characterized as an unforgiving city — people can have their lives wiped out if they veer into the wrong neighborhood. For young boys and girls looking to get out and make something of themselves, it’s indeed an uphill journey, over ground usually covered with shell casings — if you don’t end up dead or in jail, you might have a shot. Based on how folks talk, Louisville — “The Ville” or “Da Ville” to the locals — is hell on earth.

But filmmakers Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson present a wildly different depiction of this hope-crushing hamlet. Employing everything from clean overhead drone shots to a folksy jazz score, the directors make Louisville look like a sleepy, communal, pleasantly urban spot — the kind of place you’d like to retire to when you’re done with the big-city rat race. Even when we visit the most poverty-stricken parts of the city — filled with boarded-up homes, myriad liquor stores and Black and white people alike stuck in the same lower-class rut — it’s still a quiet change of pace from your average overpopulated metropolis. (Worth noting: The documentary was filmed well before Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by members of the Louisville Metro Police Department and protests overtook the city.)

Something tells me Flatté and Johnson wanted to keep their narrative positive, and blowuptuate the sparkling things Louisville has to offer. Chief among them is the River City Drum Corp, a three-decade-old drumming program for kids and teens led by Ed “Nardie” White, an older dude with dreadlocks and a flamboyant fashion sense — I swear there’s a section of the film in which he’s rocking leather (or maybe pleather?) overalls. Teaching kids about African drumming and drumline has been a mission of White’s ever since he got together with his late wife Zambia (she passed away from breast cancer a decade ago) and began showing inner-city youth they can do artistic stuff and actually be good at it.

When it comes to drums, White helps these youngsters take pride in performing and representing Black art to its fullest. He even has them make their own pipe drums out of scrap metal and cowhide. You might get the sense that White harbors a grudge against those who told him when he was younger that the arts weren’t a proper way for a Black man to make a living and instead urged him to get into sports. (Jailen, a headed-for-college teen drummer, divulges that White told him he had to choose between the arts and sports, even though the kid would’ve liked to do both.) But White isn’t out to mold these youngsters into drumming champions — he often holds a showcase that, even though it ends in a battle, is noncompetitive — as much as turn them into African-Americans who don’t think art is “gay.” You can’t blame him for wanting to show Black kids that they can do more than rap or dribble.

As Drumbeat progresses, White, who would like to get back into photojournalism and visual art, slowly but surely passes the baton over to Albert Shumake, a longtime pupil who has grown to be a DJ and a family man. This respectful passing of the torch is yet another example of how River City Drumbeat quaintly makes the case that things in Louisville can be handled with class, gracefulness and not an ounce of bloodshed. This movie lets people know that, with the right mentorship and focus, the kids are definitely gonna be all right.

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