Who would think a blaxploitation film with a no-name cast and a director best known for silly beer commercials would emerge as 2002’s most conservative mainstream movie? Drumline, which opened around the country last week, expresses a strong conservative message and provides two-plus hours of pretty good entertainment to boot. In telling the story of a college drummer, Director Charles Stone III, whose best-known previous work was Budwiser’s "Wassuup" commercials, offers a strong message about hard work and self-determination along with a realistic picture of black culture and a surprising attack on affirmative action.
Drumline centers on high-stakes competition bands at historically black colleges. The bands engage in rigorous training, stress musicianship, and even offer scholarships for the best musicians: they’re essentially sports teams. The movie tells the story of Devon Mills (Nick Cannon), a cocky streetwise drummer from Harlem who gets recruited to join the drumline at fictional Atlanta A&T. He’s talented but cares little for teamwork and, it turns out, can’t read music. Under the tutelage of the scholarly Dr. Aaron Lee (Orlando Jones from the 7-Up commercials) and sometime-nemesis section leader Sean (Leonard Roberts) Devon makes the band and then gets kicked off when he shows his "street" attitude and lies about his background. While the story ends happily for Mills, he succeeds by dropping his "blacker-than-thou" attitude and recognizing the values of teamwork, scholarship, and respect. The ending, while happy, shows Devon that his actions have consequences.
Drumline joins a handful of recent movies like The Brothers and Soul Food that recognize, at long last, that black America is a predominantly middle class society. A large percentage of black films both good (Shaft) and bad (Poetic Justice) depict black society as if middle class backgrounds were an exception (they were, actually, when Shaft came out). All of Drumline’s major characters save Devon speak standard English and grew up middle class. Devon’s streetwise attitude may look good on the playing field--a sinister University president likes it--but it gets him nowhere in life or romance. His love interest Laila (Zoe Saldana) refuses to introduce Devon to her parents after he gets into a fight on the football field. Middle class values reign ascendant.
Drumline may be the first black film to criticize affirmative action: one subplot centers around Jayson (Gregory Qaiyum) a white, self-described "affirmative action admit" who could have landed a band spot at many white colleges but, instead, aspires to take part in the superior musicianship of African-American college bands. He’s not really up to snuff, however, and looses his spot on the field early in the season. With hard work, determination, and help from Devon, however, he improves his skills and makes it back on. Race alone gets him nowhere.
While conservatives will like the film’s message, the screenplay (by Shawn Schepps and Tina Gordon Chism) sometimes lays on the moralizing too heavily: a few speeches and catch phrases seem heavy-handed. But Stone’s talents as a director make up for this: his camera daringly swoops around the band performances and he’s creative even when filming a sequence as slight as a fraternity party step. The pacing never drags and Stone gets above-average performances out of the entire cast (none of whom have ever played a major feature role before). Drumline is not a perfect film by any standard but it deserves a place as a minor conservative classic.