Movie Review: River City Drumbeat
By Matthew Huntley
September 12, 2020
“River City Drumbeat” arrives at a time when it seems more appropriate than ever to state practical, positive messages, and it underlines the idea this should be an ongoing, everyday practice. Some of the film’s memorable lines include:
“You have value.”
“It takes a village.”
“The world needs people to take charge and get involved for the betterment of tomorrow’s youth.” “There is no perfect situation; you just got to do what you got to do to make it happen.” “Education will set you free.”
“We need unity.”
At first, such maxims may sound cheesy and idealistic, but as I watched “River City Drumbeat,” it dawned on me: perhaps one of the reasons we’ve gotten to where we are with so many of the issues we face, be they related to public health, mental health, racial tension, economic disparity, substance abuse, etc., is because we don’t prioritize the principles above and have told ourselves they don’t carry weight. We see them as nice, hopeful and comforting, sure, but not necessarily realistic. What’s special about “River City Drumbeat,” among many other things, is it proves they can be.
On paper, this is a traditional documentary, with the usual assortment of talking heads and expositional scenes in which the camera follows around and interviews various subjects so we can learn more about them. But because its substance is so rich and its people so inspiring, not to mention lovable, the film’s platform and structure become secondary to its content.
To me, the “Drumbeat” part of the title refers to the vital role the River City Drum Corp has played (and continues to play) in Louisville, Kentucky. RCDC is an after-school program that contributes to (and sometimes acts as) the city’s heartbeat, if you will. Started in 1991 by Ed “Nardie” White and his late wife Zambia Nkrumah, it focuses on teaching Pan-African culture and music to the community’s youth. But, as we see, the organization also does a lot more than that.
Directors/producers Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté pointedly and economically (the film only runs 94 minutes) show us the impact River City Drum Corp has had on its leaders, students and audiences, and just seeing the kids and adults working hard and enjoying themselves makes the film worthy of our time. It’s rare for a film, especially in this day and age, to be nice and pleasant for the sake of being nice and pleasant, but in any case, it makes us feel good.
What’s particularly inspiring about RCDC is it goes beyond serving as just an extracurricular program to which parents can drop their kids off in hopes they’ll be busied and entertained for a few hours. As director, White runs a tighter, more focused ship and makes it clear that RCDC is a discipline, similar to exercise. In addition to teaching students to play the pipe drums and percussion instruments, to march in a drumline, and to read music, it instructs them on important life practices such as focus (physical and mental), balance, control, dedication, and perseverance.
And just like exercise, participating in RCDC means showing up, being present, and caring about what you do. In fact, in an early scene, White shows us some of the materials, such as cowskin, the kids use to actually make their own drums. Clearly, he wants his students to create what’s theirs, and even though White is a short man with big, bright eyes and what seems like a perpetual, jolly smile, he’s serious about setting the kids right on the right path. He wants them to take and apply what they learn at RCDC to all facets of their lives.
White has certainly instilled his wisdom unto his protégé and one of RCDC’s oldest alums, Albert Shumake, who towers over White physically but remains humble and deferential to his lifelong mentor. Despite being tall and strong, we learn Albert didn’t excel in athletics, which is especially hard in a city like Louisville, which prioritizes sports such as football and basketball over other activities. Albert’s talents were always in music, and he was just eight years old when White and Zambia saw this in him and took Albert under their wings, nurturing his skills and always letting him know he was worth it to practice and channel his gifts. Albert recognizes White and Zambia’s guidance as having played a crucial role in his upbringing and likely saving him from a life of drugs since Albert’s biological parents were heavy users.
Even though Albert is living proof of RCDC’s positive impact and “River City Drumbeat” as whole emanates an optimistic and hopeful energy, the film is also upfront and honest about Louisville’s social and economic problems and the fact not everyone escapes hardship. Like so many American cities, Louisville is prone to crime, violence and poverty, and Johnson and Flatté don’t simply gloss over or ignore this particular city’s “ugly” sides. They take us around a fair share of dilapidated neighborhoods with boarded up housing and make us listen to heartbreaking testimonies from locals who recall past tragedies, including one that’s especially painful to White himself, which makes the messages he preaches at RCDC all the more important.
We take what he says to heart because we see how easy it can be for one to lose their way and not bounce back, and the film is particularly stirring when its gets us to recognize that while there can be so much good taking place at RCDC there can also be so much bad just few blocks away. We believe White when he tells his kids they’ll never be ready for life, just like he’s not, “Because every day is something different.” What he wants is for them to be ready to adapt.
Of course, it’s not easy to get kids to listen, but “River City Drumbeat” makes us believe it’s possible. We see this with Albert, who’s now in his mid-30s, married, and has a daughter, and it’s White and Albert’s relationship that provides “River City Drumbeat” its emotional human narrative. Just as it’s an informative documentary about a place and people we might not have otherwise known about, it’s also a bittersweet story about a man, in this case White, who has accepted his time as leader is coming to an end. Johnson and Flatté follow White during his final year as RCDC’s director as he begins to hand the reigns over to Albert.
For White, this a bittersweet time. RCDC has been his baby for nearly 30 years, and in several scenes, from his instructing kids to stand in line and load equipment onto a van properly, to his reuniting with other alums who are now grown up and have kids of their own in the program, we sense both a great sadness and pride in his voice. Even we get a little teary-eyed thinking about his leaving. But White is justifiably tired and believes he’s fulfilled his and Zambia’s dreams of making RCDC a special place that will only keep growing. He’s ready to pack up and once again focus on creating various art (oddly enough, he actually began his career as a journalist).
If White and Albert’s poignant stories weren’t enough to engage us, the film also features members from the student body and we get a good sense of the diversity and “breaking with norms” RCDC promotes. One student is Imani V. Keith, who we wouldn’t believe was once “in the principal’s office all the time” because she’s now so confident and upstanding. Around her junior high school years, she answered White’s call of “Will you step up?” and became not only a drummer but one of the band’s leaders, eclipsing the the idea girls can’t fill such roles. There’s also Jailen Leavell who, like Albert, was told sports was the most important activity and therefore tried to make time for both sports and drumming. Eventually, Jailen had to choose one over the other so his form wouldn’t suffer. In the end, he chose drumming and it’s a safe bet he chose wisely.
Given this is a documentary about a drum corps, you’d think “River City Drumbeat” would feature more performances or lead up to one “big event” or “big competition,” a la the Nick Cannon teen drama, “Drumline” (2002). And while we do get a fair share of scenes showing kids marching and playing, either practicing in gyms or performing at festivals, the film doesn’t build up toward one culminating battle-of-the-bands-type scenario. If it did, it would go against what White and RCDC’s leaders are trying to promote. To them, RCDC is not about showing off, competing, or focusing on life’s far-off, “big” moments. It’s about doing your best day-to-day in order to stay honest, grounded and grateful, and about being mindful of the people you interact with, the actions you take, and the choices you make, because such decisions add up over time.
After watching “River City Drumbeat,” I’m convinced we need more films like it. It’s what you might call “healthy, essential and recharging viewing” because it reminds us not to not be complacent or settle once we’ve reached a certain plateau. We have to keep moving and growing, to be proud of who we are but continually find new ways to improve. As Albert tells us in the opening scene, “Everybody is a drummer” because we all have a beating heart and “the first thing we hear is our mother’s heartbeat.” “River City Drumbeat” encourages us to first appreciate how amazing it is to have a heartbeat but then charges us to work together to maintain it.