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by Cat McAlpine
Directors Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté explore both struggle and success in their documentary following the River City Drum Corps of Louisville, KY. River City Drumbeat captures how art and culture are both necessary for the survival of a community. The film itself has natural rhythm, moving from raucous drum performances to reflections on the darker side of life as a Black American.
In an opening shot, an instructor stands in front of a gymnasium full of young children. Asking them to place their hands on their hearts, he says, “If you get really quiet and get really still and listen very quietly you can feel something beating in your chest…we are born into the world with this sound.”
The belief that we are all born with music inside us is a driving principal of RCDC, which creates an artistic outlet and cultural touchstone for children who might not otherwise be exposed to their African roots. Executive Director and Founder of River City Drum Corps Edward “Nardie” White emphasizes how important the program is to his community, especially young black men. When White was young, he was discouraged from participating in the arts and instead pushed to play basketball and football. Now, he can trace the dozens of lives he has changed with art over the last three decades.
Johnson and Flatté juxtapose vibrant shots of family and laughter with gray rolling footage of the west end of Louisville’s boarded windows and abandoned homes. White gives a tour of his old neighborhood, reminiscing about how the Black community in Louisville has grown and changed. “Our culture is going to be our savior.” He says.
Their greatest challenges? Redlining, poverty, poor education, and violence.
A huge inspiration for both White and the RCDC was White’s late wife, Zambia. Many of the Drum Corps students, current and former, reflect on the immense impact she had on them. One young man shows her photo in his bedroom, next to stickers from prospective colleges, reflecting on how good it feels good to have her watching over him. It is in small moments like these that Johnson and Flatté are able to show just how widely and deeply RCDC has impacted the community.
Zambia is finally shown in some older footage as she accepts an award. Addressing the crowd, she says, “We must give to our young people something we all wake up with…time.”
That’s the central theme of River City Drumbeat, that youth deserve the time, attention, and love their community has to offer, and that it can make a difference. As White says to the Drum Corps before a performance, “Black arts matter.”
River City Drumbeat is a hopeful and loving portrait of a community that has found power in coming together and making music. It is joyful, and sometimes sad, but always looking forward. And it may be just what you needed to watch today.