In the segregated South, music inspires two marching band directors to cross color lines and give their students the opportunity of a lifetime.
Marching Forward is the history of two dedicated high school band directors—one black, one white—inspired by music to cross color lines in the Deep South and work together for the sake of their students. This courageous cooperation resulted in the experience of a lifetime for Orlando’s black and white students at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Subha Das Mollick reviews Marching Forward, a documentary film by Lisa Mills.
The audience who gathered at the Lincoln Room of American Centre, Kolkata on the afternoon of May 11, 2019, not only got respite from the sweltering heat outside, they were also treated to an endearing documentary film Marching Forward and a lively interaction with the director Lisa Mills.
Marching Forward is Lisa Mill’s 14th documentary film – an avocation she plunged into when she took up her teaching job at the University of Central Florida 20 years ago. Three years ago, the seeds of this film were sown at an interdisciplinary Honours class that Mills conducted along with Dr. Robert Cassanello, her colleague in the History department. The students of this class who came from diverse disciplines like medicine and architecture, dug up old newspapers in search of a good story. They chanced upon this story dating back to the 60s – a tumultous decade in the history of America. They only hoped that some of the protagonists would still be around to tell the story in all its details.
Music is as much at the heart of this story as is youth power forging a new paradigm through music. While Mills took the responsibility of planning the visuals, the onus of doing the necessary research fell on her colleague Cassanello. Old newspapers were dug up, musicians who once performed in their school bands were hunted out and archives were rummaged in search of surviving film footage.
Fortunately for the research team, Jones School, one of the major settings in the film, has a museum. Old documents, photos, costumes, drums and other artifacts were retrieved to aid the visual story telling. The research team stumbled upon old film cans in the school museum. Nobody knew what they contained. When the celluloid strips were digitized, they proved to be a treasure trove. Marching Forward would not have been the same without the old filmed footage of the Jones Band’s performances. The story comes alive through juxtaposition of memories with pictures, newspaper clippings, old television footage and film recordings and some delightful black and white animation.
Marching Forward begins with a 60s style post card welcoming the viewers to the beautiful city Orlando. We are transported to Orlando of 1964, a laid back town in southern USA, where lives were largely defined by the colour of one’s skin. There was the Jones High School for the Black children and Edgewater High School opened to cater to the needs of the growing white community. Both the schools prided in their respective marching bands headed by gifted band masters. The Marching Tigers, as the Jones School band was called, performed under the baton of James “Chief” Wilson. Del Kieffner had been specially invited by the Edgewater School to nurture the nascent band in the newly established school. The band was named The Marching Eagles.
The marching bands, dressed in their regalia, performed on all important days of the school’s calendar. During inter school football matches, the bands came out on the field at half time to the beating of drums and entertained the spectators with their pagentry. The tradition continues to this day.
In the opening shots of the film we find the current band of the Jones School rehearsing under the baton on the current band director. In between shots of young musicians blowing into their shiny brass instruments, we have the back story narrated through old photos and texts. As the music rises to a crescendo and concludes with the clash of cymbals, a yellow flower drops on the ground. We get a low angle view of the Jones School through a carpet of yellow flowers and settle down for a pleasant musical journey. But as it turns out, there is much more to this film than sheer music. The band directors saw themselves as shapers of future citizens, as the writing on Chief Wilson’s vintage car ‘Better schools make better communities’ underlines. The band directors were strict disciplinarians. Discipline and an urge to perform well in public arena got into the DNA of the band members.
Marching Forward tells the story of how the two band masters achieved a feat unthinkable in the 60s. It was an act of transgression as well as transcendence. It was an act of breaking the invisible barrier and marching forward together.
Orlando had been invited to the World’s Fair in New York. Orlando faced a dilemma – which band would be sent – the Jones School Band or the Edgewater Band? Or both?
Cut to the beat of the drums, we get glimpses of the past and the present – civil rights marches, Ku Klux Klan clashing with the police, segregated lifestyle in the past intercut with exuberant marches and dances in the present. Rev. Nelson Pinder, a civil rights activist says, “The black was black. The white was white. Never the two would meet”. Noel Weller, the Oboeist of the Edgewater band recalls that she had never seen an African American in her school, except the janitor. Painful memories of segregation pile up as the musicians dig into their memories. Some of these memories are brought alive with animated black and white drawings. Some memories are supported with newspaper and filmed footage. As the streets of Orlando resound with the slogans of civil rights activists, some black youth challenge the segregation in bars and restaurants and demand their rights. It is evident that the city is poised for a change.
The city leaders finally decide that the white band and the black band together should represent Orlando at the World’s Fair. It is a momentous decision and comes half way through in the film. For the first time in the history of Orlando and perhaps the entire country, the white band and black band would be performing together.
The onus falls on the band members, a bunch of teenagers, to raise the money for their trip. For an eight day long trip, it works out to be $125.05 cents for each band member. The teenagers of 1964, now past their prime, fondly reminisce the weeks leading up to the day of departure. They stand at street corners with tin cans to collect donation. After all, they would be representing their city in New York. They also start earning their passage money by washing cars. The newspapers come out with stories of their uphill task – Negro edition and the White edition. Industrialists and business tycoons donate generously to support the unique endeavour.
A flag flutters in the wind “To the fair”. New York beckons. The band members and their directors finally board the train to New York. For many of them it is the first trip outside the city. In New York, they are overpowered by the Statue of Liberty, the sky scrapers, the statue of Abraham Lincoln and they take a group photo in front of the White House. For the first time they dine together at a big table and for the first time they encounter homeless people. Some of them take out their cameras and Dell Keiffner stops them from taking pictures. The memories of the musicians are full of the pranks they played at each other at the Great Northern Hotel where they had been put up. Prejudices vanished in the thin air even as civil rights marches were happening in New York too.
1964 was also the year when Martin Luther King Junior received the Nobel Peace Prize. Civil Rights activists held peace rallies under his leadership and protested against segregation and injustice. Bandmasters Chief Wilson and Dell Kieffner were not activists. Nor were they politically inclined. They were musicians and teachers. Yet they achieved a milestone in the history of American South.
The White Band and the Black Band from Orlando performed together in New York. In the film some experts speculate that this feat must have caught the attention of Walt Disney who was contemplating to establish Disney World in Florida. Disney zeroed in on Orlando. Edgewater School Band Director Dell, with help from “Chief” Jones, directed a band of a thousand students from all over Florida, to march through the streets of Orlando on the opening day of Disney World.
Chief Wilson does not consider himself a great leader. He does not think that he has achieved something momentous. At the age of ninety, when he looks back, he does not nurture any negative thought from the past. He is happy to witness his successor, Jones School band director Jamaal Nicholas, carry on the mantle. Good traditions should be kept alive.
Today there is no segregation in America. In Orlando many students and teachers from Jones High School have migrated to the Edgewater School. The band in Jones High School has shrunk in size. Many schools meant for the blacks have closed down. Lifting of segregation has inadvertently led to snuffing out of unique cultural spaces.
But Jones School was invited again invited to New York. They performed at the Carnegie Hall in April 2018. This time their trip was sponsored by Walmart with a whooping sum of $100,000. Times have certainly changed.
Marching Forward ends with the Jones Band practising for the New York performance. The music continues to haunt the audience long after the film ends.
When Lisa Mills and her husband Tim worked at the editing table to thread out the narrative from the diverse footage, they had in mind the Orlando public as their primary audience. Marching Forward was premiered to a full house at the Florida Film Festival in April 2019. Students, teachers and parents from Edgewater School and Jones School braved the rain and storm and turned up for the screening. Musicians of the 1964 bands came to see how they looked on screen now. James “Chief” Wilson was not alive to witness this day. He had breathed his last in November 2018, when the editing of the film was in its final stages. Audrey William Reicherts too did not survive to witness the finished film. However, Del Kieffner’s nonagenerian wife graced the event in spite of her illness. The film was a treat for the Orlando audience – celebration of a proud moment in the history of the city. Mills is now contemplating to restructure the film to make it relevant for the national and global audience. It is a story worth telling the world.
Lisa Mills will continue to make independent documentaries because she says that only through documentaries, wonderful stories like this will surface and propagate, unheard voices from the past and present will be heard and travails in the lives of unknown individuals will be brought out in the public domain.
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