I know that you are confused. I am aware that you are trying, to the best of your abilities, to understand why a film that is so obviously about the mundane topic of marching bands looks and feels so much like a film about sports. Well that is because this is a film about sports. “Drumline” is the brainchild of Charles Stone III. He borrows heavily from the genre conventions of one of the more popular arenas of contemporary film to create a viewing experience that is truly unique.
With its fiery leading man underdog placed in unfamiliar surroundings and forced to learn not only the intricacies of his chosen profession, but also more about himself, in order to lead his “team” to victory, this film seems more apt to feature Tom Cruise than relative newcomer Nick Cannon. In it’s own right, the fact that the intricacies of music and marching band competition are told through signs, metaphors and genre-specific camera cue’s make this film a stand-alone entity that begs for you, the viewer, to realign your traditional notions of opportunity, competition and success. So unique is this project that its distributor (20th Century Fox) pushed up the release date by a month, an unusual and atypical move in the current (independent) release environment. Staying true to the form of its genre, “Drumline” is chock-full of one-liners, impressive camera moves and climatic moments; and for most directors and producers that would have been enough. But unlike its predecessors, this film has serious and pertinent issues to address – the issue of manhood, black manhood to be specific.
“Drumline” is the dynamic story of an energetic and gifted (albeit by the seat of his pants) drummer who is recruited out of high school by the head of the music program to play for the schools marching band in the alternative universe known as black collegiate football. Those of you unfamiliar with black collegiate football or the juxtaposition of importance between football teams and marching bands are in for a real surprise. This is serious business with school chasing prospective hopefuls and throwing scholarship money around to ensure victory. In the plotline’s first real departure from its genre, the traditional socio-hero archetype is turned on its ear. So well accustomed are we to the poor black child who has to battle evils both real and imagined before embarking on the monumental task of his own education that this slight of hand immediately signifies that this story is not run-of-the-mill. Our hero Devon (Nick Cannon) glides into the rumored most prestigious program due to his talent, where others had to navigate the rings of auditions and influence to so much as get serious consideration for entry. He has a loving mother and although his father is basically absent, we learn (in a tearful confrontation with his biological father) that Devon comes to college unencumbered by the ghetto anchors of bastard children, drug use or aimlessness. Credit should be given to Tina Gordon Chism and Shawn Schepps for fleshing out a script that addresses what is normally the earliest and ugliest point of contention for critics and audiences alike in this sub-genre. The metaphorical use of the drumline (and the marching band to a greater extent) allows Stone to make succinct comparisons between music and society. The average filmgoer’s extent of exposure to marching bands, in the cinematic realm, is the finale scene in “Animal House”. Rest assured that no example could be further from this film. At some point, you will transcend the silver barrier and actually become present at each game, sharing in the collective highs and lows.
True to form, our boy wonder drummer has a great deal of difficulty fitting not only into the drumline, but also the collegiate experience. He seems possessed with the raw talent that secondary education institutions only seem to dilute if not filter out. As a (relative) veteran of life and education, I desperately wanted him to retain as much of his identity as possible. I responded to one of the subtle themes of “Drumline” – conformity. But this is not conformity in the army sense, government sense, in the fascism sense; but conformity for survival, conformity for understanding. I understood not only it’s place in the narrative but also its purpose as metaphorical currency for life, I just wished it wasn’t so. Devon possesses the self-awareness and aggressiveness of the chosen few. At its inception, “Drumline” seemed more apt to comment on the failings of the American education system, and the ever-present need to restrict the exceptional so that we may placate the mediocre. This narrative vertigo is embodied by Laila (Zoe Saladana), the upper class woman and love interest of Devon. She seems to sense this about him. Her quizzical looks and reservations make this author reminisce on the hagiographic love story from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I began to see Dominique’s essence in Laila and finally understood how she, as did Dominique, feared what the world would do to her soon to be lover, he is too beautiful and pure to exist and could only live a life of pain and disappointment since his priorities were so high. This initial emotional jousting, with the cocky, unflappable freshman trying to capture the affection of the sexy, confidant upper class woman, brings into focus the true nature of the plotline. Devon must learn to be a man. In fact, all the narrative’s passengers must learn to be men (women) for any of these high-minded objectives to succeed. By setting this film at a traditional black college, we are literally forced to see the correlation Charles Stone III presents.
The ringleader of this “farm of manhood” is the unyielding Dr. Aaron Lee (Orlando Jones acting so well and so far from his 7-Up spots that they seem to be the work of another actor), whose main goal is to give the students of his program something to take with them once they leave the institution. His holier-than-thou educational edict is threatened time and time again by the dean who has made it quite clear that if the loss of the previous two years (at the B.E.T. Classic) should repeat itself, Dr. Lee will find himself and his program to be no more. Dr. Lee’s right arm is Sean (Leonard Roberts), a drum major and lead of the drumline who has an immediate dislike for Devon’s cocksure attitude and talent. He begins to teach young Devon the ways of men (first sincerely and then maliciously) for the greater good of the band. Devon quickly learns that the skill set that has allowed him to survive the “ghetto” makes him almost completely incompatible for the drumline and hence life. The explosive in-your-face confrontations between Devon and Sean are well tempered with the calm, cool instruction from Dr. Lee. His sporadic moments of one-on-one consultation make him the epitome of the mystical black manhood. Never does he resort to humor, aggression or dominance (qualities black men have been associated with for far too long) to make his point. His ability to diagnose a majority of the situations pulls the other male’s in-line, all hoping that this program and its unorthodox structure will do for them what it seems to have done for Dr. Lee.
Wishing to address manhood, athletic competition and victory, Charles Stone III has assembled a diverse and dramatic piece of material that is indebted as much to America’s love of sports as it is to America’s problems with raising men. The fact that the main characters and their environment are strictly African-American could almost be considered coincidence when acknowledging the great narrative. It plays out in a familiar fashion, yet retains the ability to shock us and cause us to guess at almost every turn. I was pleasantly surprised with how we eventually arrived at what is definitely the centerpiece of the film’s filmmaking and at no time felt that the message of the film was being corralled for the demands of the genre (sports film).
This film takes chances and is abundant with style, seeming to pick-up where Brown Sugar left off, introducing editing conventions not normally accustomed to African-American film. Those who have been following the crumbs of reviews I have been leaving will remember that several months ago, after reviewing All About The Benjamins, that I made a prediction that African-American film may be making a comeback. I am happy to announce that this prediction has come true. “Drumline” finishes out a banner-year and it does it with style. If you haven’t seen a majority of the films I have been talking about, it behooves you to do so. There is more afoot in American independent film than adaptations of children’s books and crummy rehashes of bad television. See “Drumline” and become part of something.