By Richard Ades
“Black arts matter!” Ed “Nardie” White declares early in River City Drumbeat. That’s the central message of the documentary, which focuses on the institution White created nearly three decades ago to help young African Americans forge their own future.
The River City Drum Corp teaches Louisville youngsters how to make and play drums in routines featuring African-inspired rhythms and spirited choreography. But the group’s real purpose, it’s clear, is to give them a sense of purpose and a sense of direction when it comes to mapping out their lives.
Several scenes explain the real dangers these kids face growing up in neighborhoods with a liquor store on each corner and nearly omnipresent gunfire. In the saddest of these, White recalls the granddaughter he was unable to save from a dangerous lifestyle that resulted in her senseless death.
Directed by Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatte, the 94-minute documentary unfolds in a style that sometimes seems slow and meandering. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with insights into the philosophy that inspired White through the years—and in turn has inspired many of the youngsters who fell under his influence.
Spread chronologically over several months, the film follows White as he prepares to turn over his leadership role to one of those grownup youngsters: Albert Shumake, a deejay who is willing to reorder his life to keep the group going. In the process, we learn about the important role White’s late wife, Zambia, played in both men’s lives. It was she who served as Albert’s cheerleader when a teacher told him he would never amount to anything, and it was she who convinced White that the drum group was too important to abandon.
By introducing us to some of the ensemble’s soon-to-be former members—all of them high school seniors with college in their sights—the film demonstrates that Zambia was right.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
River City Drumbeat may be streamed from Aug. 14 through Sept. 10 via Columbus’s Wexner Center (wexarts.org). A 72-hour rental is $12. For other viewing opportunities, visit rivercitydrumbeat.com/screenings.