In late January, the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University hosted a screening of The Whole Gritty City, a 90-minute film about the lives of kids, parents and teachers involved with marching bands in New Orleans public schools.
About 60 people attended the screening and discussion period after. Final credits rolled, people applauded and then a silence gathered in Nunemaker Hall; silence as the power of the story settled over the room, the charm and pathos of the children, the discipline of learning music and marching in time as sanctuary from the world of the streets with drugs and guns. As the film moved toward its climax, the scenes of youngsters marching in a Carnival parade were tense, funny, sad and gripping, all of a piece.
The film originally aired in 2014 on CBS, a special edition of “48 Hours” hosted by Wynton Marsalis. Producer Richard Barber has worked on prize-winning projects at CBS. He spent stretches in New Orleans over several years, working on the film with co-director Andre Lambertson, a cinematographer who has covered child soldiers in Africa.
Visual narratives of this kind run the risk of resorting to visual clichés about poverty and violence. TV news, for example, is a nightly show on urban homicide; station footage is available for melding with the filmed sequences to advance the action. The Whole Gritty City uses that technique though in a limited way, while developing textured profiles of a handful of people whose lives advance the larger story of music as a portal for a better life.
Jake Springfield, a New Orleans independent cameraman was the lead shooter and handled sound. A film that goes inside the lives of people in poor homes has to deal with ambience from TV sets, radios, CDs, the trills and crackles of life outside or inside. The sound layers convey how much distraction threads along in people’s lives.
One jarring moment comes in the cameo of a single mother whose 13-year-old girl plays in the Roots of Music group. She talks about her own lost childhood, struggling to work, never taking welfare, cutting it so tight financially that for a time she didn’t have enough food herself when the daughter did, and the little girl wouldn’t eat everything, saying she had enough, wanting Mom to have it. The woman didn’t break into sobs, but the resolve as she choked back tears cast a leitmotif as we follow the girl, nicknamed Jazz, learning her horn, marching in time.
L. E. Rabouin high school’s revered bandleader Dinerral Shavers was murdered in late December 2006. The city was still on its knees after Hurricane Katrina, the recovery lurched along as the drug culture returned and Mayor Nagin touted “the magic of the marketplace” to rebuild a broken town. Shavers was also a popular snare drummer in Rebirth Brass Band; he was driving the car with his wife and two kids when a bullet meant for one of his sons crashed into his head.
The film follows one of Shavers’ protégées, a young guy named Skully, finding a path in the marching band away from the raw streets – and after graduation, a job in a restaurant.
The producers installed small cameras in the homes of several participants to catch improvisational moments. Some of the scenes with the kids hamming on camera, spontaneously commenting on the tiny cosmos they inhabit, rocked the audience with laughter.
The documentary manages to let the story find its momentum without preaching. The absence of a narrator, only the occasional print on screen to advance the timeline and then the different characters we have come to know as life unfolds, give the film an unhurried sense, as tension builds over what will happen to the kids in the three bands and the galvanizing figure of Walker bandleader Wilbert Rawlins.
The Whole Gritty City is one of those rare films that captures a culture in time and in depth. Sad to say, with guns so pervasive, it’s likely to be as timely in 10 years as today.