The Whole Gritty City

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
The Whole Gritty City Movie Poster Image
Vibrant, poignant, inspiring music docu; some profanity.
  • NR
  • 2013
  • 89 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Without moralizing or instructing, the movie clearly advocates for school and public efforts to give inner-city kids a sense of purpose, a community in which to thrive, and the confidence to find and development their strengths. With music as its platform and African-American kids from New Orleans as its subjects, the movie firmly documents an "it takes a village" effort that enriches young lives and counters the effects of the challenging neighborhoods in which they live. Integrity, perseverance, and teamwork are major themes.

Positive Role Models

The major players are African American. All the teachers and band directors are committed, hard-working, generous, and empathic -- exemplary members of the community. The band participants, both kids and teens, have made music a dominant force in their lives. Viewers get a sharp sense of the pressures of the neighborhoods in which they grow up, as well as of the strength and resilience they must develop to thrive in spite of that environment. Their determined involvement in band life, as well as their connections to the men who lead those bands, give them hope and confidence. 


Although the only actual violence on-screen is a minor scuffle between rival band members, the ominous presence of brutality and senseless death that's a part of life in this New Orleans community is a constant. Viewers learn (and, in one case, experience first-hand) the impact of several tragedies in which gunfire kills loved ones, friends, or colleagues. 


Some parade scenes show some participants in revealing costumes.


One "damn," two instances of "f--k."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some parade footage shows spectators drinking. Though there is no drug usage, substance abuse and the availability of drugs in the community are frequent topics of discussion. Authority figures attempt to counter the impact of these realities with both lectures and one-on-one conversations.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Whole Gritty City is a documentary about three New Orleans marching bands made up of kids and teens. Without narration or commentary, a compelling case is made for providing at-risk kids with an enriching alternative to life as it is experienced in their challenging inner-city neighborhoods; in this case, that alternative is music. Despite the uplifting and inspirational nature of the film, there are moments of great tragedy and sadness. Death and violence are near-at-hand with neither reason nor warning, though only the aftermath of these events is depicted. The brief, mild screen action occurs when band members are accosted by parade spectators or rival musicians. One burst of anger includes a student using "f--k" twice. The movie's true stars are the kids and their teachers who do succeed. An important and beautifully executed film, it provides families and teens with stunning insights and plenty of opportunities for thoughtful discussion.

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What's the story?

THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY takes viewers into the heart and soul of New Orleans's youth marching band community. Filmmakers Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson set up their cameras in the rehearsal rooms, teachers' offices, practice fields, kids' homes, and neighborhoods of three local bands, then marched with them through the streets during Mardi Gras. Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., leader of the O. Perry Walker High School Marching Band; Jaron "Bear" Williams, a 10-year-old horn player; and "Jazz," an immensely talented and enchanting 13-year-old girl, are among the many memorable people we meet. Along with their musical experiences, the film captures the struggles of day-to-day events in the lives of its players and records their hopes, their frustrations, and, in many cases, the exuberant optimism that music brings into their communities. First broadcast as a special event on CBS's 48 Hours, the film's release on DVD will provide more opportunity for a wide range of viewers. 

Is it any good?

This is an inspiring and moving documentary with great people who have amazing stories to tell. It's an act of faith when filmmakers decide to make a movie documenting real-life events as they unfold. They open with the beginning but have little or no idea what the middle or the ending will be. It's a very different experience from that of other documentarians who retell a story, add perspective, and perhaps hope to influence opinion about what has transpired.

Richard Barber and his codirector Andre Lambertson were rewarded for that faith by being on the scene for extraordinary moments in the lives of both kids and grown-ups in New Orleans's urban landscape. Marching bands have never been so captivating. The spontaneity, insights, candor, humor, joy, and even tragedy Barber and Lambertson encountered and shaped into a remarkable film couldn't possibly have been anticipated. The result is at times joyful, at other times incredibly sad. Be prepared to be shattered by some of the stories. The Whole Gritty City is best for mature teens, and even better when shared with families. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the advantages or disadvantages of a documentary without narration or commentary like The Whole Gritty City. How does narration affect your experience of the film? Do you like the idea of coming to your own conclusions or having help (commentary) coming to those conclusions?

  • Music is the "art" that makes a difference for the kids in this documentary. What other arts or activities or events might have the same positive effects on kids? Are there plenty of opportunities for such involvement in your community? How would you seek them out?  

  • Describe the qualities that best define the teachers and band directors in this film. How does their involvement affect their students' lives at home? In their neighborhoods?

  • How does The Whole Gritty City demonstrate integrity, perseverance, and teamwork? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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