THE WHOLE GRITTY CITY IS A FILM BORN OF VIOLENCE. In 2007, director Richard Barber was working his day job at CBS in New York City, editing footage for the network series 48 Hours. He was working on an episode titled, “Storm of Murder” that examined the murders of musician Dinerral Shavers and filmmaker Helen Hill in New Orleans, killed just days apart in December 2006 and January 2007, two victims of the rash of violent crime that ran rampant as the city still reeled from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
Even in a city with a reputation for the kinds of cold-blooded killings that stem from housing project turf wars and drug trades, Barber says these two murders “didn’t fit the usual profile that people were getting used to, basically black kids killing black kids.”
Barber had never been to New Orleans, and he’d never made a movie, never directed. He wasn’t an aspiring filmmaker looking for a story. But as “an incredible admirer of Louis Armstrong,” he knew that Armstrong grew up poor in New Orleans, got in trouble with the law and learned to play music in the band at the Colored Waif’s Home. He says he started thinking about “what an incredible contribution African-American music has made to this country and how marginalized and ignored kids like that are.”
So, after watching hours of footage about Dinerral Shavers, snare drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band and band director at L. E. Rabouin High School, after hearing about how Shavers was shot in the back of the head, taking a bullet meant for his 15 year-old stepson, after hearing the kids in the neighborhood talk about Shavers as a mentor and positive influence, Barber decided to make his first film.
The murders of Shavers and Hills are emblematic of New Orleans’ violent crime problem, an issue made worse by the community’s distrust of police and and a code of silence fortified by fear of retaliation. It’s a complicated social issue, and one that Andre Lambertson has seen in communities around the world.
Lambertson is the co-director and director of photography of The Whole Gritty City. His background is in photojournalism, and he first came to New Orleans in 1996 for a story about police corruption for the New York Times Magazine. Lambertson has worked all over the world, often documenting children in poverty and the violence that’s always close by. He worked in the high-rise projects of Baltimore; he worked with child soldiers in the Liberian civil war; he worked with children in Haiti following the devastating earthquake of 2010.
When I met up with Lambertson a couple of weeks ago, he was in town shooting the A&E series The First 48, a reality TV show that follows homicide detectives in the hours immediately following a murder. A few days before we met for coffee on scenic Esplanade Avenue, he was at the scene of a grisly triple murder.
Lambertson tells me that he tries to be invisible when he’s working, but that’s hard for me to imagine because he’s such an engaging figure. He’s tall and slender with short dreadlocks and bright eyes. He talks emphatically, slapping my knee or punching me lightly on the shoulder when making a particularly prescient point.
He tells me a story about being in Coney Island with a civil war refugee from Liberia. When he pointed out some notoriously dangerous housing projects to her, the young girl said, “They don’t look that bad.” Lambertson says that he and the girl could see the Atlantic Ocean from where they were standing, which got him thinking about slave ships arriving in New York, slave markets in New Orleans where human beings were bought and sold, and the complicated chain of events that results in the kinds of pain and suffering that he has witnessed in his work.
“Sometimes I look at the legacy of things, and its not simple,” he says. “It’s deep. It’s bigger than I can hold, and I can’t hold it very long.”
Lambertson calls The Whole Gritty City an “antidote” to the emotional weight of his other projects.
“I’m used to looking at very dark stuff,” he says. “But I think what people don’t understand is, in certain communities, everybody thinks it’s just pain there, and it isn’t. There’s life there, people living. Just because there’s guns there, just because there’s death there, doesn’t mean there’s not joy.”
The Whole Gritty City is not a typical documentary. There’s no voice-over narration or talking-head interviews to guide viewers through the footage. There are no conventional story arcs. It’s an immersive collection of characters and scenes that reveal real-life details and big picture moments, though the two aren’t always related.
Barber and Lambertson came to New Orleans without any specific ideas about the movie they wanted to make. They started shooting at Rabouin High School, following up on Barber’s initial connection to Shavers. That led them to the Roots of Music marching band, an after-school program that provides academic support and music education for students in New Orleans, which in turn led them to the marching band at O. Perry Walker High School.
As the cameras rolled, characters began to emerge: Bear Williams and Jazz Henry, young players in the Roots of Music; Kirk, a sousaphone player at Rabouin, and Skully, the band’s drum major. And then there are the band leaders that take charge as authority figures and mentors. There’s Lonzie Jackson, who took over at Rabouin after Shaver’s death; Derrick Tabb, drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band and a founder of Roots of Music; and Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., at O. Perry Walker, one of the city’s most visible band directors.
Barber and Lambertson made a dozen or so trips to New Orleans between 2007 and 2010 and compiled hundreds of hours of footage.They filmed bands in the practice room and on the parade route, and they followed characters through the streets and into their homes. Some of the most compelling stories in the film come from the contrast between the neighborhoods where kids are tempted and pulled in countless directions and the strict discipline of the band room, where band directors who grew up on those same streets try to instill a sense of self-worth through music.
The film’s style, which borders on cinéma vérité, is partly by design, and partly by necessity. The filmmakers didn’t have the luxury of quitting their day jobs, so they weren’t able to establish a seamless continuity from the first day of shooting to the last. They missed out on some things that might have better created a linear narrative. Barber says they could have filled in the gaps with title cards or narration, but that’s not the movie he wanted to make. Instead, he chose to follow in the footsteps of documentarians like Robert Drew, an influential American filmmaker who provided Barber with his first freelance editing jobs in New York. Barber also counts the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman as one of his influences.
“Fred Wiseman makes every effort to show what's there without influencing it,” explains Barber. “There's a logic to how he orders scenes, but it's not the obvious logic of a narrative or a thesis. The viewer has to do some of the work of putting things together. But when it works, as a viewer you have a sense you've witnessed a real moment without being told what it means or how you're supposed to feel.”
Lambertson acknowledges that not everyone likes the style of The Whole Gritty City. He recalls meetings with executives and distributors who were interested in the movie, but they wanted to tighten it up into something more conventional. Barber and Lambertson held their ground and were adamant about maintaining their authorship of the film.
The beauty of The Whole Gritty City comes through in the film’s trailer, which first hit the internet back in early 2011. Initially, the filmmakers hoped to have the film done by the end of that year, but they hit an obstacle familiar to many independent auteurs: they ran out of money.
From the beginning, the film was financed primarily by Barber, relying on “what should have been my retirement money.” Once those funds were exhausted, he turned to Kickstarter. After two successful campaigns on the crowdfunding website, the filmmakers raised over $70,000 to cover post-production costs and legal fees. The financial struggles delayed the film’s release, even though the 3-minute trailer released for the 2011 Kickstarter generated a lot of excitement among backers and beyond.
It’s been five years since Barber and Lambertson started the movie, and a lot has changed since their first trip to New Orleans. Rabouin High School closed in 2010, and band director Lonzie Jackson moved to George Washington Carver High School. Earlier this year O. Perry Walker High School merged with L.B. Landry High School, making Rawlings the director of the unified Landry-Walker band. Bear now plays in the Landry-Walker band, and Jazz Henry is a member of the all-female Pinettes Brass Band; both players appeared in the HBO series Treme. The Roots of Music band has continued to thrive, and they appeared in the annual Pasadena Rose Parade at the beginning of 2013.
Sadly, The Whole Gritty City isn’t without casualties. The film begins and ends with footage from a funeral in the late spring of 2010, a murdered musician whose death is reminiscent of Dinerral Shavers. For Lambertson, it’s another chapter in an endless cycle of violence that he’s seen around the world, but he remains optimistic that New Orleans offers an alternative way of life.
“As a photographer, I want people to look at things and see what needs to be changed,” says Lambertson. “I’m trying to bring people in with compassion. When Richard was editing the film, I told him we’ve got to put in as much joy as possible, as much dancing as possible.”
The continued success of the marching bands and the perseverance of the city’s musical culture is due in part to a passionate few who embody the ideals of arts education and the power of mentorship. The future of The Whole Gritty City is still uncertain as the filmmakers continue working out distribution deals, but Barber and Lambertson are committed to using the film to promote cultural awareness, and they want to make it available for educational screenings to support marching band culture throughout the country.
“While everybody’s trying to figure out how to solve these problems of violence,” says Barber, “there’s this powerful resource that’s right here--very specifically in New Orleans, but not just in New Orleans--that should be celebrated and encouraged and supported.”
The Whole Gritty City plays at the Contemporary Arts Center Saturday, October 12th at 6:30 PM and at the Prytania Theater on Monday, October 14th at 4:15 PM.