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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that River City Drumbeat is a documentary about the River City Drum Corps, a youth percussion program with the goal of enriching the lives of Black children and families in Louisville, Kentucky. Directors Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson interview the group's co-founder, Ed "Nardie" White, as well as alumni, parents, current students, and former-student-turned-successor Albert Shumake, who talks about how the African percussion and drum line program transformed his life. Expect infrequent strong language, including interviewees talking about the racial slurs yelled at them (the "N" word) and how even teachers told them they wouldn't amount to much. There are also a couple of upsetting conversations about the murder of White's granddaughter and the cancer that killed his wife, and people discuss breaking the cycle of poverty, violence, and substance abuse. Still, despite a few sad/heavy conversations, the movie has themes of communication, empathy, perseverance, and teamwork and is a story of triumph and cultural awareness, showing how the drums helped and inspired generations of West Louisville's Black kids.
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What's the story?
RIVER CITY DRUMBEAT centers on the River City Drum Corps, an award-winning percussion program for kids in the Black community of Louisville, Kentucky. Co-founded by Ed "Nardie" White and his beloved late wife, Zambia Nkrumah, in 1991, the Drum Corps aims to teach Black children about African percussion and use the "spirit of the drum" to offer kids an arts-based extracurricular activity that develops leadership and accountability skills. Directors Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson follow Nardie, an intelligent, charismatic man who was clearly inspired by his wife, and his protege-turned-successor, Albert Shumake, who himself was greatly influenced by the program (and Nardie and Zambia's guidance) as a young man. The film also highlights a few of the program's then-current students, mostly high school seniors who credit River City Drum Corps with helping them stay focused and get into various historically Black colleges.
Is it any good?
This is a touching, powerful documentary about a program that has empowered and educated generations of young Black musicians and students. Co-directors Flatté and Johnson beautifully capture the triumph of Nardie and Zambia's mission not only to teach kids how to play the drums but also to provide a cultural understanding of their heritage through African percussion. The program is more than a class or activity: It's a community that supports kids through and beyond their high school graduation, which is why the portions featuring Nardie's successor, Albert Shumake, are so poignant. Here's proof that being seen, acknowledged, and encouraged as a child can be hugely influential. And seeing how the program continues to shape the lives of Black high schoolers, many of whom take their drumming skills to drum lines at historically Black colleges and universities, is incredibly heartwarming.
The filmmakers don't shy away from sadder aspects of Nardie's journey. Much of River City Drumbeat is a tribute to his late wife, who died of cancer. There's also an upsetting, emotional retelling of how Nardie and Zambia's granddaughter was killed after getting involved in a retaliatory gang shooting. It's heartbreaking to watch Nardie, who's helped so many children, discuss the guilt of not being able to do the same for his own granddaughter. But there are far greater moments of joy as both current and former students thank the group for instilling in them a sense of purpose, an appreciation of African culture, and a structure that helped them succeed both in and out of school.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what role the performing arts play in the kids' lives in River City Drumbeat. How does the River City Drum Corps impact its members? What are Albert and the other spotlighted students specifically thankful for?
What does Nardie mean when he says that there's not a clear path for Black men who want to be artists? What do Nardie and Albert learn from sculptor Edward Norton Hamilton Jr. and his public sculpture of President Lincoln reflecting on the slave markets and ships along Louisville's waterfront?
How are the topics of violence and poverty depicted in the film? What role do mentors play in the story and in the interviewees' lives?
- On DVD or streaming: August 7, 2020
- Directors: Marlon Johnson, Anne Flatté
- Studio: Owsley Brown Presents
- Genre: Documentary
- Topics: Great Boy Role Models, Great Girl Role Models, Music and Sing-Along
- Character strengths: Communication, Empathy, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 95 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: August 14, 2020
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