"It makes your heart beat faster": Documentary celebrates the artistic side of Louisville's West End

"River City Drumbeat" directors Marlon Johnson & Anne Flatté told Salon about the drum corps uplifting Black lives

Published August 7, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

River City Drumbeat (Owsley Brown Presents)
River City Drumbeat (Owsley Brown Presents)

"Black Arts Matter." These are the words spoken by Edward "Nardie" White, the co-founder (with his late wife Zambia Nkrumah), of the River City Drum Corp (RCDC), a Louisville, Kentucky community organization. The upbeat, immersive documentary, "River City Drumbeat," directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté, chronicles the changing of the guard as Mr. White (as he's known) passes the baton to Albert Shumake, a former member of the RCDC.

The film, which was shot mainly during Mr. White's last season (2016-2017), shows how being in the drum corps helps empower and motivate youth. Mr. White teaches the kids about African history and culture — such as Kwanzaa — while also providing life lessons about discipline and leadership. By participating in the drumline, teens are less likely to be involved in gun violence or abuse drugs.  

While Shumake has big shoes to fill, he is excited and even a bit intimidated to carry on the tradition. He acknowledges he must be an authoritarian, disciplinarian, music teacher, administrator, cleric, and therapist all at once, and that other parts of his life may suffer as a result of his commitment. But his work has value and meaning, and viewers will appreciate how teens in the program, such as high school seniors Imani and Jailen absorb and benefit from his work ethic and messages.

The musical performances by the RCDC are as impressive as the work being done by White and Shumake. They care about the kids in their community whose lives are impacted by poverty, redlining, and other social ills. One sobering observation in the film is that there are only two grocery stores in the West End Louisville neighborhood where the film is set, but a liquor store is on every corner. 

Johnson and Flatté spoke with Salon about their new documentary and the power of music and the beat of the drum.

How did you discover this program, and what prompted you to make a documentary about it?

Marlon Johnson: Anne and I had each been working on music documentaries. We met in Miami and hit it off and thought there was a chance to do something together. We partnered with producer Owsley Brown who wanted to do something with the [RCDC] organization. When Mr. White knew he was going to retire, it prompted a level of urgency with the story. They brought me out to observe and get to know the potential participants in the film. As a storyteller, you want to make sure it's a story you want to tell. I explored the organization and members and Mr. White and Albert, and I had a lot in common with them. We knew it was a worthwhile endeavor.

What informed your approach to the subjects? 

Anne Flatté: We are super-interested in real people's vibes. We're both parents and we feel — like these people you see in the film — that they are doing something incredible with their ordinary, extraordinary lives. We knew we had a way in with it being Mr. White's last year. There are a lot of stories that could happen, but as we got to know Albert and Imani and Jailen and discovered the role of Zambia, it was really amazing. What we discovered is how he and Albert were both inspired by Zambia. It's not a competition film like a lot of docs are. It's daily life that builds into legacy. We find that powerful, and those are the kinds of films we're interested in.

Johnson: We made a conscious decision to immerse our audience in the story, but that does make it more difficult because it requires the audience to be participants. There is a certain challenge to telling a story about people who are not famous and non-historical events. But when you look at them and peel back a layer, you see how compelling their individual stories and life experiences are. What Mr. White has been through and is going through and his perspective on it all . . . Their impact is just as important as any famous person in our humble opinion.

Flatté: One of my favorite quotes by Mr. White is, "Your future is not in front of you, it's behind you in the youth in the community." They realize human potential is a gift.

The film is very much about Black Arts Matter, and the importance of groups like RCDC to help youth find a sense of self-worth. Can you talk about that? Mr. White says in the film he was discouraged from pursuing something in the arts because that is not what Black men do, which is heartbreaking.

Johnson: We both can relate to this. Me personally, the first 12 years in my life I grew up in a neighborhood in Miami like the West End. It was 100% African American. Heavy with sports team and narrow opportunities. When someone introduced me to the arts, a whole world opened up to me. It changes your perspective. It saved me because I was able to go to a school outside the neighborhood.

I remember how much time and dedication it took to play sports. Imagine putting that time and energy towards arts and science! It would change our country fundamentally. That's not to knock on sports. 

Flatté: I played piano as a child. It helped me with my emotions. Not everyone is great in sports. I don't understand why they cut art and music in school. It's one of the reasons kids like to go to school. It's all about funding. Mr. White said that he wishes there was equal emphasis given to arts and music as for sports. It's so important to so many kids and it helps them in school. 

I love the idea that Mr. White is old school and Albert is new school. What are your observations about these two men and their leadership styles?

Flatté: They have a super interesting relationship and I feel that it's not unusual in organizations like the RCDC that there are challenges in passing the baton. The new school style of Albert is different and seeing how both men navigate that is interesting. 

Johnson: Mr. White's approach is very tough love. As we've been doing virtual screenings, one of the things they said is that anyone taking his class was surprised by how vulnerable and emotional he was in the film. He's hard-nosed because of what he knows of the world. Albert is a softer touch, and that's a dynamic based on his age and nature. 

Flatté: Albert respects the old school. His relationship with Mr. White is one of mutual respect. He's going to do it differently and make it his own organization. He's incredibly positive and just shines. He's living proof the RCDC works. He lived this whole path and was saved by the drum corps. He has that confidence which is wonderful to feel when you are around him. 

I like the profiles of Imani and Jailen. Can you talk about including their stories?

Flatté: I met Jailen and Imani before we started filming and they were leaders in the drum corps. Jailen was section leader, and Imani was right there too. Part of the film is about leadership — of your own life, other people, and your community. To us, they were going to be potentially really wonderful to follow around and they were. Every kid in the drum corps would have been an amazing story, but we are doing a feature, not a series. We really wanted to have the younger generation, so Emily also was someone we were introduced to, and we loved Cal, her dad. It's important to have the moms and dads and give screen time to the parents who are giving to this community which is so important to their children. I like acknowledging that it takes a community. The ecosystem of this organization is a lot of people behind the scenes.

Johnson: From a storytelling perspective, you don't know what you're going to get. That's the organic part of making a documentary. You aren't sure where the story is going to lead you, and it's important that we leave ourselves enough space as artists to explore and embrace the unknown.

Mr. White and Albert talk about African history and culture. They teach the kids how to make their drums. There is a discussion of enslavement and the Louisville Lincoln sculpture, as well as a Kwanzaa celebration. How did you perceive the kids processing these lessons?  

Johnson: The learning for them is on a continuum. The younger kids realize they are part of something special even if they don't understand the nuances of this. Jailen says, "Now that I'm graduating, I'm starting to get what Mr. White taught me all these years." Each step of the way they are getting better at these life skills and communicating and appreciating the traditions and culture. But it is ever evolving. 

Flatté: I think about what Albert says how important it was to him as a 9-year-old to hear about the contributions of African Americans to this country and the world and how important it was to his sense of self. This history needs to be told, and these stories need to be heard. 

There are discussions of community, with scenes at family homes, at churches, and at RCDC events that emphasize the unity and the "It takes a village" mentality of raising children together. What can you say about the program helping bring community together?

Flatté: The community loves it. One of the things important to the people in the film and to us is the way the West End community is portrayed in the news. It is not their truth. Every night, the West End is on the news, and that's a misrepresentation of what's happening in the West End, and everyone knows this. They are living their lives. As one woman in the film says, "Where are the stories of people making a difference in our community on the news?" It's very meaningful to the community to have the corps around. There are many arts groups in the West End. People outside the West End don't know what's happening in the West End. If you are a part of the community represented, or from a community similar to this community, you will see yourself on film. If you are not part of it, you will connect with this community and expand your responses. RCDC shows investing in the community with the people in the community. These are homegrown programs. 

Johnson: My sentiments exactly. We were filming one time at the Palace [Theater] and there are hundreds of people there and we were the only media outlet there. As Mr. White says, "There ain't no smoking, ain't no drinking, and it's not going to be on the 11 o'clock news." I went back to my hotel room, turned on the news and at 11:02 they reported a shooting in the West End. This is part of the problem. We need an accurate representation of the community.

We wanted to listen to the community, and they wanted to be heard — rather than have people come in and tell them what is best for their community. 

You open with a scene where the kids are being taught the drum is like a heartbeat, and you showcase practices and performances. How did you work on incorporating the music into the documentary and not make this a performance film? 

Flatté: It does make your heart beat faster to listen to this drum music. It's so powerful. Music is such a powerful force, and a human thing. It connects us all like a heartbeat. And film does too. If you can't meet them in person, you can connect with them in the film.

"River City Drumbeat" is available for two weeks only in virtual theaters starting Aug. 7

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Arts Interview Louisville Movies River City Drumbeat