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Ballou Band: What A Movie Can Show

You won't catch "Ballou" at the multiplex. The documentary isn't slick--its characters are never fully developed and the images are sometimes fuzzy. But the movie about the Marching Knights of Ballou High School that just spent a week showing at the E Street Cinema is delivering its message with all the power of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Director Michael Patrei and his colleagues spent the better part of a year glued to Ballou band director Darrell Watson and the members of his unlikely community, a marching band that is a singular success at a Southeast Washington school better known for shootings and academic failure. The result is a film that communicates the remarkable ability of a few devoted adults to create the cocoon and the opportunity for achievement that is too much missing from the lives of teenagers in this city's most troubled places.

"Ballou" isn't likely to be viewed by millions, but when I went to see the movie on E Street, the ticket taker told me this was the "best movie they ever showed here," and the woman selling popcorn told me that this was "our movie." At several points during the movie, I heard sniffles as the small group of moviegoers gathered in a little screening room at the back of the E Street complex took in the pain and joys of teens who live just a few miles from downtown Washington, yet seem to exist on a different planet.

Marred only by the bloviating of a few talking heads--Jesse Jackson, Colin Powell, Marion Barry--who jumped at the chance to blather about the importance of the Ballou band, the movie shines when it shows the supreme importance of being there. The filmmakers never mention that some of the children in the band themselves have children, and then you see one kid holding her own baby. The director never specifically points out the lack of parental participation and presence in tough schools like Ballou, and then you realize that there are no parents in this film. There are only a few fleeting images from TV newscasts about the murders and drug dealing by which most outsiders know the Ballou neighborhood, but the presence of death as a normal event in the lives of these teenagers is palpable throughout the movie.

The documentary has brought Watson and his students to the White House and to national TV, and next year to the Tournament of Roses parade, and that's all wonderful. But there is a sad pattern in which the occasional splendid accomplishment in the D.C. school system wins a flurry of attention and praise, and then, when the spotlight moves on, the original achievement fades quickly. The sad decline of the Eastern High School choir, one of the most extraordinary highlights of the D.C. schools in the past generation, is an object lesson in what can happen.

That's not to take anything away from the movie or the band--both are big and important boosts to a school and a neighborhood that need whatever they can get. And beyond all of this, the film demonstrates that people like Watson and the volunteers, who turn the band into something far bigger than the school system would ever have made it, are making a searing and lasting difference in the lives of students who could otherwise be passing images on the TV crimecasts.

But if Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty are to make a real difference in the schools, they must plant the seeds for many more Ballou bands and more chess clubs and more It's Academic teams and Model U.N. squads and all the many subcultures and havens that suburban high schools take for granted. For a high school is not just rigorous academics and a full complement of sports teams, but also a collection of places where passions can be channeled into the creation of community and the protection of others who care. That's what you see in "Ballou," in the little moments where kids who might seem tough on first meeting turn out to be hidden eight-year-olds more inclined toward a pillow fight than an alleyway standoff between crews, more driven by the basic human desire to achieve than by the tiresome tribulations of turf battles on the hard streets of the city.

By Marc Fisher |  June 23, 2008; 8:16 AM ET
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Posted by: More $ for Education | June 23, 2008 10:22 AM

One of your best pieces in a while Marc. Thank you!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 23, 2008 1:32 PM

Posted by: derek | June 24, 2008 5:58 AM

I am a total sucker for marching band articles. I was in Marching Band in both high school and college (Virginia Tech's Marching Virginians) and both were the highlights of my education at each institution. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and I remember it fondly. Being part of a group striving toward a greater goal is always rewarding. My best to the Ballou Band Buddies; once you become a part of it, you never want to give it up. I hope their movie makes it to Richmond. Shout outs to Dave McKee, Harry Price, the incomparable Jim Sochinski, and the late, great, and forever cool Hunter Purdie, great band directors all.

Posted by: Harvey | June 24, 2008 6:00 AM

A heroic effort. If only they sounded better.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 24, 2008 7:28 AM

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