Filmmaker Q&A: ‘River City Drumbeat’ Co-Directors Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson

On the occasion of the streaming release of River City Drumbeat, the SFFILM-supported documentary by Anne Flatté and Marlon Johnson that was originally scheduled to screen at the 2020 SFFILM Festival, we asked the filmmakers a few questions about their creative and collaborative process. Flatté and Johnson are close to the SFFILM Makers family, Anne having been a FilmHouse resident throughout the production and post-production of River City Drumbeat and both having been guest instructors at this summer’s Young Filmmakers Camp.

River City Drumbeat opens Friday, August 7 at the Roxie Virtual Cinema.

Hi there! Tell us a bit about your film and how SFFILM was involved in helping it get made.

Anne Flatté: When River City Drumbeat begins, we meet Edward White, who has devoted his life to leading the African-American drum corps he co-founded with his late wife, Zambia Nkrumah, in Louisville, Kentucky. Over the corps’ three decades, Mr. White and Ms. Nkrumah connected many young people from West Louisville to the cultural traditions of their ancestors and to the arts. The film follows Mr. White as he gets ready to pass on the leadership of the drum corps to Albert Shumake, whose destiny was shaped by the drumline. Meanwhile, student drummers Imani, Jailen, and Emily navigate adolescence and a world in which systemic forces challenge the fulfillment of their dreams. The creative community that surrounds the drum corps mentors them and supports their journey. River City Drumbeat tells a story of music, love, and the power of legacy set in the American South.

Marlon Johnson: We were very honored that River City Drumbeat was produced with the support of a 2018 SFFILM FilmHouse Residency made possible with the generous support of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and the SF Film Commission. The residency provided stellar mentorship and a fantastic cohort of narrative and documentary filmmakers who together engaged in artistic development, workshop opportunities, and support for each other’s efforts. That year at FilmHouse was a critical time in the editing and post-production phase of River City Drumbeat. The dedicated community of artists and industry professionals encouraged us to stay true to realizing our artistic vision and also propelled us to finish the film and launch it into the world.

What was it like working together as co-directors on this project?

AF: Given how long it can take to complete a feature-length documentary (in this case, four years), it was wonderful to have a creative partner to share the work, develop the vision, and help each other by sharing the highs and lows of the process. We feel our complimentary artistic approaches and cinematic styles helped us create a more truthful film.

MJ: Working with Anne as a creative partner definitely expanded my perspective and deepened how the story was told. We each discovered elements we would not have seen both during production and in the editing room, and these ended up being realized onscreen in a beautiful and transformative way that reflected this directorial collaboration.

What inspired you guys to make this film?

MJ: The film was inspired by the tireless work of the founders and current leaders of the River City Drum Corps (RCDC). We observed the impact RCDC was having and the role they were playing in saving the lives of kids in the community of Louisville. The power of the arts to steer one’s own life toward the best version of themselves is exemplified in this film. Often, art films involving youth follow a competition model; however, we wanted to take an emotional, narrative approach that more closely aligned with River City Drum Corps’ non-competitive philosophy. Mr. White has taken the long view when it comes to his corps members — building up their inner leadership and life skills so they can go on to carry those lessons into the rest of their lives. As a result, the drum corps is a strong tree rooted in African American culture, and its members and alumni are the fruit of that tree.

When we met Albert Shumake, the new leader of the corps, he was juggling a number of roles and personal milestones. He was a new father, his mother was gravely ill, and he wanted to continue working as a DJ and an artist while stepping into the very large shoes of Mr. White. His was a compelling, relatable story arc about identity, legacy, and duty. It has been a joy and a journey making this film over the last few years with the drum corps community. Their stories resonate deeply with my own experience of growing up in Miami and finding my path through the saving grace of the arts.

AF: I’ve always been drawn to stories about artists and how they create art to both reflect and shape the world inside them and around them. As a parent, I have come to understand and appreciate the work that is required to raise children by not just parents but an extended community of caring adults and mentors. These themes are at the core of River City Drumbeat. Working on films about artists has led to some beautiful creative partnerships such as this one.

After Marlon and I met five years ago while working together on a video series about music in Miami (Music Makes a City Now), we knew we wanted to work together again. Our producer, Owsley Brown, was raised in Louisville, and is dedicated to independent documentaries that explore the power of art and music. He knew Edward White, the drum corps founder, and introduced us to the idea of doing a film on the stories of the community-based drum corps in west Louisville.

When Marlon and I each first met Mr. White, he shared some intense stories about his life’s work, and all of us felt this film had to happen. At that time Mr. White was at an important crossroads. He had decided to step down as leader of the corps, and spend a year mentoring Albert Shumake, a drum corps alum who returned to Louisville to take up that leadership mantle. Mr. White and Mr. Shumake quickly became our partners in telling their life stories and revealing their emotional journeys. We also followed the next generation of young drummers, including high school seniors Imani and Jailen. Ultimately, it was the collective effort of all the children in the drum corps that would drive the film’s powerful heartbeat.

Are their specific films or other media that have made an impact on the way you shaped your film?

MJ: The film Searching for Sugarman inspired me because it is, at its core, a film about a transformative journey, a film about discovery and the inherent power and effect music can have on a community. Additionally, it tells the tale of unrecognized individual brilliance. These are all themes that impacted my most recent work. The first time I experienced the film, like many, I was unfamiliar with the artist, Sixto Rodriguez. Despite this fact, the filmmaker was able to weave a passionate story of social, political and personal depth that both surprised and inspired me. Parts of that experience helped me to remember to continue to trust your instincts as a storyteller and to keep giving your audience the credit they deserve.

Similarly, in River City Drumbeat, my/our approach was to have the viewer purposely set out on a constantly unfolding journey with unfamiliar individuals and circumstances and experience the impact on a community that would eventually reveal the brilliance of those in the film. Other inspirations were Hoop Dreams, Treme, and the music of Alice Coltrane, and Shabaka and the Ancestors.

AF: There are so many films that inspire me, and I wanted to stretch stylistically and deeply explore the emotional landscapes with this film — Wings of Desire is a major influence. I love the way that film begins with reflections on childhood and you get to listen in on all these people’s interior thoughts while watching them go about their lives, and also of course the aerial shots from the perspective of the angels. For sheer visual imagery and vivid storytelling, I love Daughters of the Dust and Queen of Katwe. L’Avventura showed me that a character can have a presence in a film even after they are gone. That helped me understand how Zambia could be an important part of the film.

Working on this film about the importance of mentors also reminded me of the huge impact my own teachers and mentors had in nurturing and shaping my love of filmmaking, including Jan Krawitz, Kristine Samuelson, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jerome Hiler, and Allie Light. Playing and listening to music has always shaped my entire perspective on the world, from the time I was a child until now, so it’s a very wide range of influences.

Got any pandemic picks? How are you keeping busy while sheltering in place?

AF: I’m at home with my husband and two teenage sons, and after dinner we all like to watch shows together, and look for series that work for everyone. Since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place period began, we’ve watched: Locke & Key, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Good Place. I’m really enjoying The Good Place because it’s about four people stuck with each other in an existential crisis and it’s also a comedy about mortality and ethics. Somehow this resonates right now…

I also have a group of friends I watch films with on a regular basis, and we moved to streaming and then meeting up on Zoom to talk about the film. We watched Crip Camp together and everyone was so glad we did. On my own, I’ve watched the series I Am Not Okay with This and Anne with an E. I’ve also taken a lot of dance breaks with Prince and other music videos on YouTube to lift the mood.

MJ: I am currently sheltering in place with my three daughters, and we’re watching HBO’s Westworld. As I move from non-fiction narratives into exploring the fictional world, the show has given me a great sense of what is possible in storytelling and how far you can push the boundaries creatively. Shows and films like Westworld and Jordan Peele’s Us are refreshing because they challenge the audience to be active participants in interpreting the world they portray, which leads to great conversations afterwards. I am also taking this time to explore other entertainment options, including a few great reads including the novel A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James as well as a few inspirational podcast series.

Since the local premiere at the SFFILM Festival was canceled, this weekend’s opening at the Roxie is the Bay Area’s first chance to see the film. What do you hope people take away from it?

AF: We hope the film moves our audiences emotionally, and that they leave the film feeling connected with the film’s protagonists, either because they recognize a community familiar to them, or because they recognize the spirit and passion embodied by the west Louisville community they get to know.

MJ: We hope this deeply personal story of cultural connection and determination, challenged by the reality of this country’s history and circumstances, will inspire and engage audiences in a lot of different ways. We also hope the film inspires audiences and communities to become more active supporters of the arts and especially youth arts programs wherever they live.

Watch River City Drumbeat starting Friday, August 7 at the Roxie Virtual Cinema:

SFFILM members have access to a live-streamed Q&A with the filmmakers and special guests on Wednesday, August 12 at 6:00 pm:

Anne Flatté is a filmmaker based in San Francisco. Her ongoing fascination with exploring the world through music and film has spanned many years and award-winning documentaries. She is director and producer of River City Drumbeat (SFFILM Festival 2020), Symphony for Nature (PBS National Broadcast, 2019) and the shorts series Music Makes a City Now (YouTube, Flatté is a producer of the feature documentary Serenade for Haiti (SFFILM Festival 2017). Her editing credits include Monumental: David Brower’s Fight for Wild America (2004), What Do You Believe? (2003), Daughters and Sons (2005) and Devil’s Teeth (2005). Flatté has a M.A. in documentary film and video from Stanford University, where she directed the award-winning shorts Interlove Story and Body of Tradition. She has a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley. Since 2002, her other major occupation is parenting two children, who are now teenagers.

Marlon Johnson is a ten-time Emmy award-winning producer and director. He has worked on award-winning documentary films exploring music and cultural issues like Singular (2019) Symphony in D (2017); Sunday’s Best (2010) and Coconut Grove: A Sense of Place (2005). The Ford Foundation commissioned Johnson to direct the documentary Breaking the Silence (2006) which chronicled the rise of HIV infection in the Black American South. Johnson served as Head of Production and Senior Producer/Editor for Plum TV and helped create TeleAmerica Broadcasting Network. His documentary Deep City: Birth of the Miami Sound (SXSW 2014) aired nation-wide on PBS. He has a B.S. in Communications from University of Miami.

SFFILM’s FilmHouse residency program is currently accepting applications for the 2021 term; the deadline to apply is August 31. Visit for details.

Presenter of the SFFILM Festival, SFFILM is a year-round nonprofit organization delivering screenings & events to 100,000+ film lovers annually.

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