Director Richard Barber's The Whole Gritty City made its world premiere Oct. 12 at the 24th annual New Orleans Film Festival. The film follows three marching bands from local schools — O. Perry Walker High School, L.E. Rabouin High School and the Roots of Music — from 2007 to 2010, as the bands emerge after Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, face violence in the streets and triumph on Carnival parade routes.
The film also gives an intimate glimpse inside the lives of several band members. There's 11-year-old Jaron "Bear" Williams, a prodigy mourning the shooting death of his older brother. There's 18-year-old drum major Chris "Skully" Lee, who is taking the reins of his school's new band following the death of its director. Then there are the band directors dedicated to putting on the best show ever while helping their students build a better future.
As the sun sets and the sky goes black, O. Perry Walker band director Wilbert Rawlins Jr., nearing the end of a grueling after-school rehearsal (what he calls "the relentless pursuit of perfection"), gives an impassioned speech to his musicians: "I'm the only one of my friends [I grew up with] still living. It was eight of us. Four of us got killed at different times. Three of them overdosed on heroin. I'm the last one living."
"As we kept learning, we kept filming, and we saw a way to tell the larger story — basically, kids struggling with so much, and this phenomenon of bands and band directors passing on so much to them," Barber tells Gambit.
In an opening montage of the film, Rawlins says playing music in a marching band is a means of escape, a way to forget troubles at home or on the streets and find camaraderie through performance: "It must be nice to actually live like that, with no actual cares in the world, you know?"
Filming took place during a dozen trips between December 2007 and May 2010. Barber, an editor and producer for the CBS program 48 Hours returned to New Orleans after working on an episode of the program that looked at post-Katrina murders in New Orleans, particularly murders that catalyzed a citywide anti-violence march at City Hall, including those of filmmaker Helen Hill and Dinerral Shavers, a drummer for Hot 8 Brass Band and band director at L.E. Rabouin High School, one of the first schools to reopen after the levee failures. Shavers helped create the school's marching band, which did not exist before Katrina. At 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 28, 2006, a week before the instruments arrived for the school's marching band, Shavers, 25, was shot to death.
"I was working on that show, watching these interviews with these high school kids talking about their struggles and their lives and what he meant to them and what his band meant to them," Barber says. "It was such a powerful thing in their lives. I was always interested in New Orleans music and this was a whole other side of it I haven't seen before — that it's deeply rooted in the community, such a force in these kids' lives. I just thought there was something there. There's a story there that needs to be told."
Before his death, Shavers appointed Lee a drum major.
Violence weaves throughout the film, from Shavers' death to gunfire interrupting an O. Perry Walker football game to a scuffle between rival schools after parading.
To Be Continued Brass Band member (and O. Perry Walker drum major) Brandon Franklin, who Rawlins groomed to eventually replace him as band director, was killed in May 2010 at age 22. As Mardi Gras mobilizes band members in the film for their citywide debut on parade routes, Franklin's funeral unites bands throughout the city in the film's profound climax.
Barber makes the streets a looming presence. They're either a potential distraction to band members or are used as a warning from band directors. Rebirth Brass Band drummer and Roots of Music founder Derrick Tabb says that distraction is a real danger.
"Marching bands kept me away from the negative vibes going on in the streets," Tabb tells Gambit. "I was surrounded by it. Having to march in parades, having to march at different functions. That time to 5, 6, 7 o'clock, when children are most vulnerable to be in that kind of trouble, I had to do my homework and march in a parade with the band. I didn't have time to do anything else."
In the film, Barber introduces Williams as the young man sternly supervises the other young trumpet players in his line with the Roots of Music program.
Barber gave band members handheld cameras to record video diaries of sorts. In the film, Williams brings his camera home and records his neighborhood on his walk from the school bus stop. "This is the neighborhood I don't like," he says. "This is the street I don't like, 'cause it has guns."
What initially was a film about the role and importance of marching bands in New Orleans unwittingly became Roots of Music's origin story. Roots of Music's first class began in June 2008. Barber began filming O. Perry Walker and Rabouin in 2007, and it wasn't until a year after filming began that he discovered the Roots of Music.
Tabb, who was named one of CNN's "Heroes" in 2009, co-founded the free after-school program that provides band instruction, tutoring, transportation and meals to at-risk elementary and middle-school students. At its heart, the program is anti-crime and focuses on education. Since 2008, more than 500 children from more than 40 schools throughout New Orleans have been in Roots of Music. The program partners with Tulane University, which provides students for tutoring sessions and homework help. The program has a semi-permanent home for rehearsing at the Louisiana State Museum's Cabildo. StubHub has signed on to provide corporate sponsorship for its second year.
Williams now performs with L.B. Landry-O. Perry Walker College and Career Preparatory High School's band (the schools merged this school year) and that school's brass band, The Chosen Ones. Jazz Henry, daughter of musician Corey Henry and a subject of the film, graduated from the Roots of Music and now performs with the Pinettes Brass Band. Bear and Jazz also had roles in the HBO series Treme.
This year, there are more than 120 children enrolled in the Roots of Music.
The Whole Gritty City captures Roots of Music in its infancy: its first parades, its first black-and-gold uniforms and its first musicians.
"At the beginning of the program we didn't know what to expect," Tabb says. "We had a lot of kids coming to us in our first year. We didn't even think the program had more of a chance than it did. Before long, we had a film company right there filming and watching our every move. It was kind of awkward, but it became like a sense of (Barber) being a part of Roots of Music. The filming crew was family."
One of the film's unique perspectives comes from handheld cameras given to several band members. In one scene, Lee gives shout-outs to several of his friends and family members, many of whom have died, including Shavers.
"I was just hoping something would work with that," Barber says. "I think it did. Each one used it differently. Skully, we had such a hard time pinning him down to do any filming with him. It was a constant problem on this project to meet up with people. We gave him the camera and thought, 'Well, we'll see what happens.' I was just blown over when we started looking at this shout-out that turns into this shout-out to all his friends and family he lost — including this guy he reveres — and starting the band."
Those self-directed clips give a firsthand glimpse into their points of view, Barber says. "It shows you something in a way that someone shooting from the outside isn't going to show you."
In Williams' clips, he introduces his family. Henry uses her clips to show off her instruments. "When I grow up, I want to be a musician and follow in my dad's footsteps," she says.
"It's not just a music thing or a sports thing, it's about caring about the kids and putting them first with everything we do — and giving them a positive role model," Tabb says. "When they see the negativity, they understand to tell the difference between the negative and positive and decide where they're going to go."