Ballou High School on Washington D.C.’s East Side is similar to a lot of schools in troubled urban areas in the United States.
It’s in a community plagued by crime, poverty and high unemployment. Students walk through metal detectors when entering school. Crimes sometimes occur inside the building. But this all-too-real life experience is only the backdrop of Michael Patrei’s documentary, Ballou, about the school’s nationally renowned marching band.
It’s among the films playing this month at the 15th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., in downtown Chicago. The festival ends Sept. 3.
The 86-minute documentary includes well-known figures such as Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell singing the band’s praises, but their comments are bookends. The film’s main focus is on the students – musicians, flag girls and dancers – and the adults who teach them. They’re led by band director Darrell Watson, a passionate and charismatic former Ballou student. He’s a father figure and sometime disciplinarian to his kids. He’s also at times a big kid himself, joking with the kids and his staff. Most of his adult instructors are unpaid volunteers and alums of the school.
We meet some of the students and hear their personal stories. Fifteen-year-old Lewis, a junior, joined the band with his brother Anthony, who has since died of leukemia. Lewis, a year younger than Anthony, also sings in his church choir and wants to be a minister later in life. He plays the sousaphone and is the band’s president.
Kenney, also a junior and a snare drummer, is the acknowledged jokester. Mr. Watson, as his kids refer to him in the film, sometimes has to rein Kenney in. But the drummer is serious about his playing and is the snare drum section captain. One moving moment in the film involves Kenney, his band mates and teachers remembering the death of one of his best friends and a former teacher. The two died on one of the planes in New York on 9/11. It was a trip Kenney was supposed to go on but had to back out of at the last minute.
The film takes place mostly during practice in their band room and on the football field, and during games where they perform – all in preparation for a national marching band contest in Alabama. They’ve already won their share of competitions across the country and have appeared on national news and talk shows. The film ends with their performance against two other bands and the announcement of a winner, which we won’t reveal. But the band’s success, as Mr. Watson told them in an emotional speech before the competition, is not measured in awards but in their relationships with each other and with him.
Ballou is sometimes funny and serious, but always entertaining and enlightening. And the band’s performance at the Alabama competition shows why they’re one of the best in the nation.