River City Drumbeat: An Urban Heartbeat

By C.J Hirschfield

Many fine films tell the story of charismatic teachers who change lives, and they serve to inspire.  The new documentary River City Drumbeat is one of these films. Promoted as “a story of music, love and legacies,” it follows a dynamic African drumming corps for kids founded and taught by the magnetic Edward “Nardie” White as he prepares to turn the operation over to a successor after a 30-year run in urban Louisville, Kentucky.

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Two out of three of the film’s award-winning creators hail from the Bay Area: Producer Owsley Brown and co-director Anne Flatté, and financial support was provided by SFFILM Makers and the Kenneth Rainin Foundation in Oakland.  Anne says that it was her creative collaboration with co-director Marlon Johnson of Miami, who like Anne, has a background in making music documentaries, that makes the film special. Citing the film’s location, she says “we literally met in the middle.” Obviously a labor of love, the film features the corps’ extremely talented and motivated kids, but what we are really seeing is the critical importance of family and community in teaching self-determination, in addition to drumming.

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         Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté​​                  Photo by Megan Resch/Owsley Brown Presents

Shot over an 18-month period in 2016-2017, the film had its world premiere at DOC NYC last November, and a screening at the Miami Film festival shortly thereafter. The team was looking forward to showings at SXSW, EDU, and was particularly excited about its Bay Area premiere at the SFFILM Festival in April.

But then Covid-19 hit, the world changed dramatically, and the events were canceled. The live drumming performances that had added so much energy to the previous events couldn’t happen. “We just kept going, and quickly adapted,” says Anne, whose focus has pivoted to the new world of virtual screenings.

You can’t watch the film without being acutely aware of its timeliness. The west side of Louisville, Kentucky is where Breonna Taylor lived, and Drumbeat opens her world to us— to both the beauty of the community as well as its systemic injustices. The city really feels like a character in the film, and we are invited to listen to the many voices of people who live there.  With Louisville now highlighted in the news, Anne says that “there’s a wave of recognition now.” The fact that producer Owsley grew up in Louisville no doubt adds to the depth of the telling.

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                                  Jailen Leavell                                         Photo by Juan Castañeda/Owsley       Brown Presents

“The pandemic, then uprising—both huge–changed the landscape of the country, and Louisville is in the center of that,” says Anne. “All of the people featured in the film are living through it on the front lines.” One of the students featured in the film, Jailen Leavell, is now a broadcast journalism major in college, and he is reporting regularly on the protests.

The very effective use of aerial drone footage in Drumbeat further informs our understanding of the city, showing its beauty, as well as the stark difference between neighborhoods. Before this technology, it would have been financially unfeasible to get this perspective. Anne credits cinematographer Juan Carlos Castañeda for the drone footage’s beauty and thoughtful use.

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Photo by Juan Castañeda/Owsley Brown Presents

Drumbeat’s soundtrack, by B. Quincy Griffin, compliments the drumming focus. “Music is a powerful force that makes us feel connected to each other– cinema does that, too,” says Anne.

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Albert and Ella Shumake                                                          Photo by Juan Castañeda/Owsley Brown Presents

The Corp has now gone completely virtual; its future now in the hands of Albert Shumake, whose life, we learn, was transformed by his experience growing up, and having been mentored in the Corp. The film also reveals a key piece of the past, as we learn the story of the inspirational woman whose impact on the program remains profound.

“The future is not in front of us, it’s behind us in the children we have raised,” River City Drumming Corp’s Edward White is known for saying. The stories of Imani, Jailen, and Emily, raised by a very special community, can’t help but give us great hope for the future.

In the Bay Area, River City Drumbeat is streaming at the Virtual Roxie and opens at  Rafael@Home on August 14. To rent it from other art houses and film festivals go here.    

Join Co-directors Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté and special guests Albert Shumake and Ed White who are expected to participate in an online Q&A, Wednesday, August 12 at  6pm presented by SFFILM. Free advance registration suggested here.

Visit the River City Drumbeat Website.   Facebook.   Twitter.   Instagram.

Learn more about the River City Drum Corp and watch performances.

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screen-shot-2019-09-21-at-1.22.34-pm.pngC.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.

C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”

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What are the critics saying?

Meet the creative team behind the movie.

For more information, contact:  rivercitydrumbeat@obpfilm.com

Follow Co-Director Anne Flatté on Facebook.

Follow Co-Director Marlon Johnson on Facebook

Follow Producer Owsley Brown on Facebook

Sponsor school showings of River City Drumbeat.

Study Guide for youth educators and parents.

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Photo by Juan Castañeda/Owsley Brown Presents

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