Out of the mouths of babes and trumpeters: Documentary triumphs in its child-centered perspective

February 27, 2014

Posted By Sarah Carr On February 27, 2014 @ 11:01 am In K-12,New Orleans,News 

NEW ORLEANS – Many of my favorite moments in ‘The Whole Gritty City,’ a new documentary about the power of school marching bands in New Orleans, feature everyday glimpses of the city’s kids just being, well, kids: There’s the look of embarrassment and pride on an 11-year-old trumpeter’s face when his family calls out to him from the sidelines of a parade route; there’s the utter goofiness of a pint sized 13-year-old musician’s candor in showing us the neat precision of her daily teeth brushing ritual; and there’s the mixture of shock, curiosity, and glee with which middle school age band members observe the silhouette of a naked woman dancing behind a screen, at the start of the all-female Muses parade.

Listen to an audio recording of this essay:

http://hechingerreport.org/wp-content/uploads/CarrBandsCommentaryMp3.mp3 [1]

It’s a testament to the skill of filmmakers Richard Barber and Andre Lambertson — but even more so to the poignant soulfulness of the children featured — that the kids outperform even the famously charismatic adult band directors. The film very loosely follows the bands at the now-obsolete Rabouin and O. Perry Walker high schools, as well as the Roots of Music program, which brings together children between the ages of nine and 14 from across New Orleans.

[2]Throughout ‘The Whole Gritty City’ the young musicians are afforded wide berth and ample screen time to share their thoughts on everything from the porch steps where they feel most comfortable hanging out to the guns that infest some of the blocks they must traverse every day. Even the title of the documentary was inspired by one of the student’s soliloquies: 18-year-old Skully’s declaration, as the camera zeroes in close on his face, that he needs to give a shout out not only to his momma and friends Peanut, Johnny, Killer Chris, and Busy Bee, but to “the whole gritty city. You hear me? The whole gritty city.”

Gritty is an apt word to describe not only New Orleans, but each and every one of these kids. There’s a brief segment in the film, when a group of students parades through a deep, New Orleans-size pothole of a puddle without breaking formation. The moment speaks to the children’s tenacity not just in marching band, but in life. Some days, they get speckled with all the salt the earth can possibly throw their way, yet somehow keep their stride.

Watching the documentary, I kept contrasting it with Blackboard Wars, the Oprah Winfrey Network’s 2013 reality television series about the takeover of a New Orleans high school by a new charter school operator. Blackboard Wars also prominently featured New Orleans schoolchildren and their challenges (including teen pregnancy, mental health issues, gun violence, and school fights). But in Blackboard Wars there were few, if any of the intimate everyday moments that captivated me in ‘The Whole Gritty City.’ Instead, the series defined the children by the worst of their problems and, as a result, pathologized a community. By neglecting to portray the students as multi-dimensional — with all the quirks, dreams, and flaws typical of teenagers — it was also untrue.

‘The Whole Gritty City’ is hardly devoid of tragedy. The documentary concludes with the murder of Brandon Franklin, a recent graduate of O. Perry Walker, who served as the school’s beloved assistant band director. In the film’s emotional finale, hundreds of teenage musicians gather together [6] on a sweltering morning to perform a final tribute at Franklin’s funeral. The students pour their heartbreak into the music — some with dramatic fury, others with quiet pain. A minister implores the crowd, “Don’t ever think it’s OK to bury your children.”

Don’t ever think it’s OK to bury your children.

The minister’s declaration, the heartbroken mourners, The Whole Gritty City: They hold power, precisely because, by that final scene, the film has so clearly established that we are watching ordinary children. Ordinary children pouring their hearts into music, and trying to find their way forward, in the wake of extraordinary pain.

Some comments about the February broadcast from Twitter and Facebook

February 24, 2014

Tragic yet beautiful

Floored. Wow. Raw. Honest. Beautiful. Those band directors are heroes. Those kids are winners.

Powerful, poignant, & inspirational.

Inspiring, heartbreaking. Wonderful!

I ended up feeling almost like I knew the people.

Raw, real, and beautiful all the same time.

A powerful-thought provoking-wonderful program...

Amazing. Just amazing.

This was the all time, absolute, GREATEST documentary I've seen in a long time.

Gorgeous, heartbreaking, deeply moving.

We have watched it and will watch it again. // The beauty, love, and the heart of the citizens of New Orleans shined through from start to finish.

o...m...g i still have this on my mind POWERFUL

Now that we have stopped crying, I need to tell you that you made a great movie....This is a beautiful, touching portrayal of a complex issue.

I am still held by what I saw and heard. What strong and caring men, who used music to speak to young people, to teach them life lessons and how to survive and progress; to move forward...What a moving and powerful program! Thank you!

This is humanity

Wonderful way to teach the truth!.

Tore my heart right out.

Wow, that was fantastic, powerful. Heartbreaking, but hopeful. Great documentary.

The emotional impact - the compassionate portrayal of complicated issues that defy a simple summary, - were all there.

LA TIMES - TV Picks: 'Gritty City,'

February 15, 2014

The Whole Gritty City" (CBS, Saturday). Like many documentary films, this feature-length look at New Orleans, marching bands, kids and band directors took a while to get done. Shot from 2007 to 2010, it was finished with funds raised from Kickstarter and acquired by CBS, which is airing it under the rubric of its crime-umentary series "48 Hours." (Richard Barber, who edited the film and co-directed it with Andre Lambertson, its director of photography, works for the series.) The venue is not entirely inappropriate -- murder is a recurring theme through the film, a low, dissonant pedal tone that fades up occasionally but never completely fades away. But it is not the dominant note, which is the creation of harmony, figuratively, literally.

It's sometimes hard to track -- there are three bands, three band directors and numerous young players, and it is not always easy to remember who goes with whom, and who goes where, and the film, which (excitingly) is as close to cinema verite as network television ever gets, jumps around between them, without narration or much in the way of identifying titles. But since all bend toward similar goals, with similar obstacles in the way, it is all, in a sense, the same story; the end, which is at once heartbreaking and hopeful, makes that clear. ("Treme" fans may be reminded of Wendell Pierce's story line, in which an itinerant trombonist finds himself -- and finds himself -- slowly becoming a teacher.) It is a look at life, rather than a structured argument; or rather, the argument is made continually, with casual eloquence.

Certainly, the adults here, teachers and parents both, have a sense of urgency and mission; New Orleans is a dangerous place, most years in the running for the nation's murder capital, and the hope for new generations of city youth is to redeem them with music -- the satisfaction it brings, and the discipline it demands -- which is a long city tradition in itself. But what is most affecting is what the camera catches -- the gleam of brass, a toddler drumming with fair authority on a sidewalk, figures in a field at twilight rehearsing, pages of music blowing in the wind, faces in thought, and not in thought. It shows you the town; it lets you listen to the music without getting in the way. (There are times when no one speaks, for the network equivalent of eternity.)


Students write about "The Whole Gritty City"

January 25, 2014

One of our favorite parts of premiering “The Whole Gritty City” in The New Orleans Film Festival was doing free screenings for public school audiences (thank you Skye Macdonald!). The group of students from McMain High School wrote essays the day after they viewed the film. Here are some excerpts.

 “The Whole Gritty City was a very eye-opening experience. It will forever change the way I look at things. To the three teenagers that opened up enough for it to be real, I say thank you! I felt like I was going through your day to day lives with you. The way of music made me feel uplifted and proud to be from New Orleans...To me it was not a documentary, it was emotional eye catching heartfelt hope in the whole gritty city." 

“I like how the film didn’t just talk about the violence and other conflicts the people may go through in their neighborhood, but it gave the children a voice....I also liked how the competition wasn’t just between the bands for parade season, but the competition of rising above all the negativity in their life, and becoming a better person. It was better than a big box cinema. It was life."

“The movie was full of emotion. One character that stood out to me most was Bear. He was so young and wise for his age. It amazed me how he committed himself to his music.”

 “The gritty city showed that kids with less money can actually be something in life. This made the film very emotional which gets a crowd’s attention."

“It was very funny in the beginning but at the end it started to get very sad. I almost started to cry but I try my hardest not to cry...My favorite character was Bear. I just loved me some Bear in the film. He look a cool and funny kid.”

“I also like the way the different families were put together to form one.”

 “As soon as the production started I couldn’t turn my head. The music was on point with the movie and it got me in my feelings and got my undivided attention.”

“I went through some of the hard stuff those same people went through after the storm. I liked how it showed the stuff going on in those kids’ neighborhood..”

“The movie The Gritty City was different from movies I’ve watched. The people were real, their stories were real, and there was no acting involved. All of their stories really touched my heart. I cried a little. Most movies are about not too many real things and also they are never about New Orleans band struggles...I want to thank you for giving me opportunities of seeing the movie because it made me take a second look on life.”