A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Sgt. Curtis Davenport The shooting instructor 27 years in uniform

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”

At the end of an unmarked driveway in a wooded area of southeast Atlanta, past the SWAT team barracks and armored vehicles, next to the firing range where bullets pierce paper heads and hearts, Sgt. Curtis Davenport teaches police how not to kill people.

As commander of the firearms training unit, Davenport’s basic responsibility is to make sure Atlanta’s 2,000 officers can hit those paper targets. But over the past five years, as police killings of unarmed African-Americans caused a national uproar, Davenport’s job evolved to include “de-escalation” training — encouraging police to avoid pulling the trigger at all.

One Wednesday this summer, 22 police officers filed into Davenport’s classroom inside a small, one-story building. He stood at a lectern wearing khaki pants and an olive drab polo shirt. The pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of gunfire was audible from the range 40 yards away. On the walls hung promotional photographs of Glock firearms, including one that showed a close-up of a pistol clenched in a white fist, ATLANTA POLICE printed along the barrel, the muzzle an ominous black tunnel. “Confidence,” the caption read. “It’s What You Carry.”

Surrounded by all this deadly force, Davenport began his mission of peace.

He had invited me to attend his two-hour class, shoot on the range and participate in a video simulation of dangerous police encounters, all to help counter today’s anti-police narrative. The backdrop was the city of Atlanta, cradle of the civil rights movement and the modern black mecca, where 54 percent of the population and 58 percent of the police are black. Atlanta is one of the few major American cities where the police force comes close to reflecting the diversity of the population — which has not deterred Black Lives Matter protests and activism within its city limits.

Davenport is 50 but looks 35. He still has the muscular physique of the college fullback who reached the last round of cuts at Atlanta Falcons training camp. He can talk with the spin of a politician — Davenport was the Atlanta Police Department spokesman for three years — or break fool like your country cousin. He can quote Scripture or Ice Cube. Relying on the laws of God and man, he walks the tightrope between black and blue with serenity and confidence.

“I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else,” Davenport said. “The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took. I swore to uphold laws. I swore to protect your rights. I swore to protect you when you can’t protect yourself. So while that is a part of my responsibility, being a police officer does not make Curtis Davenport who he is.”

Yet, after 27 years in uniform, he sees the world through a blue lens and can’t help but feel the pressure.

“Police officers to a certain extent have been dehumanized,” he said. “We’re not people with feelings. It’s like they want us to be robots.”

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Change, get fired or quit

Inside Davenport’s classroom, 16 of the 22 officers were black, including two women. Everyone carried a gun except Davenport. He clicked his PowerPoint to life and began:

“The public demanded that police be reformed down to their training, and this is one of the results,” he said, citing former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. “So they came up with this course, and if I were to sum it all up in a phrase, it wants the police officers in America to get out of the warrior mentality. And they want you instead to adopt what’s called a guardian mentality.

“That may be kind of hard for some people, especially those who’ve been doing this a long time or those who don’t think that’s what they want to do.”

For the resistant cops, Davenport offered three options: You can change. You can keep acting the same and get fired, possibly indicted. Or you can quit.

“It’s hard to change public perception, it’s hard to change what people think and feel about you, it’s hard to change their interpretation of what you do. But what we can do is we can change ourselves.”

Next came the details. Davenport drilled down into exactly when and how the Constitution and the state of Georgia permit police to use force. He told the officers to look for alternatives — just because they can legally use force doesn’t mean they should. The ultimate goal is “voluntary compliance.”

“De-escalation is all about utilizing other options,” Davenport said. “It’s not about taking away use of deadly force. What it’s about is, do I have to use deadly force? Do I have another option present?”

He covered tactical details such as how distance determines appropriate force. He reviewed what every officer already knew: The law allows you to shoot unarmed suspects. Always shoot at center mass — not at a leg or shoulder. Shoot as many times as necessary to end the threat. But if you shoot one unnecessary bullet, it can cost you your job or your freedom.

Over and over, he advised officers to control their egos. Everybody who wears a badge has a big ego, he said. “That is our biggest hindrance.

“If you work an extra job and somebody gotta leave, you tell them to leave like, ‘You, out, get on out of here.’ They walking to the door, ‘Ah, you sorry m—–f—–, I’ll whoop your a– on the street.’ Guess what? He walking out. I don’t have to have ego. People looking at it, ‘Aw, you see that police, man, he a chump. He took all that stuff.’ End of the day, I got voluntary compliance. Make sense? That’s de-escalation in a nutshell.”

There was a caveat, though, that explains why many police who kill unarmed civilians are not prosecuted.

“De-escalation is only to be used when you’re dealing with nonviolent suspects,” Davenport told his class. “If you’re dealing with a violent suspect, do what you do.”

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Kevin D. Lilies for The Undefeated

Sgt. Davenport works with officers in the classroom of the Atlanta Police Department Pistol Range on how to de-escalate situations and what indicators might lead to drawing one’s weapon. Officers work on their accuracy on the shooting range to ensure they do no more damage than is necessary to subdue an attacker.

Life after football

Davenport was born and raised in the city, with summers spent on his grandparents’ rural Georgia farms. After graduating from Lithonia High School east of Atlanta, he earned a computer science degree at Clark Atlanta University while playing football as a 5-foot-10, 260-pound battering ram of a fullback. In four college seasons, he had four carries for 4 yards and four touchdowns. The running back he blocked for got drafted. Despite stone hands and slow feet, Davenport almost made the Falcons from their 1989 training camp. He still feels like he has one more bone-crunching block in him.

After football, Davenport needed a job and the police department was hiring. His physicality served him well when he began patrolling Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods in 1991 and became an undercover narcotics investigator in 2005. Arrests led to lots of fights — “You’re taking somebody someplace they don’t want to go.” He has a scar on his thigh from being bitten by a 300-pound woman who wanted no part of his handcuffs. He trained in taekwondo, kung fu and ground fighting. He learned how to head off physical battles just with the bulge of his arms and chest beneath his tailored uniform. He’s 230 pounds now, still works out ferociously, would like to be 215 but his wife bakes a mean batch of cookies.

Davenport was raised in the church and was saved in 2002. Giving his life to the Lord made him more patient and tolerant, and also unwilling to take shortcuts that some officers considered permissible.

He keeps a Bible in his office at the firing range. It’s as much a part of his job as the dozens of bullets all over his desk — inside ammunition boxes, encased in curved rifle magazines, loose in a plastic cup. After the class, explaining his belief that policing is based on biblical principles, he read from Romans 13:1:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

Then verses 3 and 4:

For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The bullets on his desk looked more lethal now. Davenport closed his Bible.

“I ain’t asking you to agree with it,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.

“When I put my actions up for judgment, I didn’t put it up for your judgment,” Davenport said. “Sometimes, by pleasing him, I don’t please them.

“Sometimes,” he added, “ ‘them’ is other police officers.”

I thought about the off-the-books lawmaking “contempt of cop” punishable by a night in jail, and remembered Freddie Gray running from police, getting cuffed and then being carried out of the police van with a broken neck.

Last June, the police chief asked Davenport for his expert opinion of a video that showed an officer punching a man in the face while trying to arrest him. Davenport referred back to his secular Bible — the Standard Operating Procedures of the Atlanta Police Department.

“Force must be reasonable, and it must be necessary,” he said. “Was what he did reasonable and necessary? The answer is no.”

The officer was suspended for 20 days without pay. That upset the rank and file, as the arrested man had a reputation for fighting back against police. Davenport said that a few years ago the officer would have received little to no punishment.

I asked whether that’s a positive development.

“Whether good or bad,” Davenport replied, “it lets you know that policing has changed. He did the old actions, and he got the new punishment.”

Is there a downside?

“We have a lot of police reform, but no community reform,” he said. Criminals “are still doing the same stuff, but I can’t do the same stuff to combat it.”

Davenport recognizes that mass incarceration has devastated the black community. He believes African-Americans are treated unfairly in the justice system. But he sees another part of the equation too.

“Let’s be honest. Was anybody protesting when Ray Ray shot Peanut?” he said. “Just two people who live in the ’hood. I think that’s a far bigger issue, black-on-black crime, than blue-on-black violence.”

It was time to shoot on the range, a manicured green quadrant with a steep hill of red dirt at one end. Davenport outfitted me with a holster and police-issue 9 mm pistol. He instructed me how to hold the weapon, sight down the barrel and ignore the “unnatural event” of setting off a tiny bomb in my hand. Pulling the trigger took as little effort as turning on my phone. A hole appeared in the paper person’s head, and I was filled with sadness at the thought of black boys carrying death in their pockets.

Black and Blue: A veteran black officer teaches police how not to kill people

Ferguson and Sunday dinner

The biggest complaint Davenport has with police work is the pay. In Atlanta, a sergeant’s salary tops out at $72,000 before overtime. Davenport brings in another 10 or 20 grand a year with extra jobs, primarily as security at the Tabernacle concert hall, so he can “enjoy some of the comforts of life.”

It was very comfortable riding in the black leather passenger seat of his new Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. We pulled up to his five-bedroom brick home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the suburb of Decatur. Inside the garage was his beloved 2007 Harley-Davidson Street Glide, parked near a black leather jacket emblazoned with the name of his old motorcycle club, the Buffalo Soldiers. Davenport and his wife, Valerie, who works in the UPS finance department, bought the house out of foreclosure in 1996.

Curtis and Valerie, an amateur bodybuilder, cooked Sunday dinner together in their cozy kitchen. Their pit bull puppy, Bella, rescued from a shelter, scampered underfoot. Curtis dropped steaks and salmon on the grill. Valerie sautéed cabbage and prepared mac and cheese and cornbread. A box of takeout fried chicken sat open on the island counter. Crab legs boiled, sending enough “Slap Ya Mama” seasoning through the air to draw a cough. Nothing special, this spread. Just a regular Sunday.

Their sons arrived: 23-year-old Clayton, who attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship and now works as a plumber, and 21-year-old Cameron, who went to work for CSX Railroad out of high school. Next came Davenport’s father, Jimmy, and his stepmother, Karen. Jimmy and Karen got married when Davenport was 16; he calls her Mom. Last to arrive was their daughter Sydney, 20, a sophomore at Albany State University.

A lawnmower buzzed outside, pushed by a former Atlanta police officer who went to prison in the aftermath of a scandal over falsified search warrants. Davenport could mow his own lawn, but the former officer needs the work.

Sitting in a paid-off house, bellies full, paychecks steady, driveway full of cars, the Davenport family’s biggest immediate concern was whether the Falcons could make it back to the Super Bowl. Curtis and Jimmy have season tickets. Nobody felt conflicted about police work or passionate about Black Lives Matter.

Valerie described her husband as a loyal, responsible, dedicated man who follows the rules. Clayton recalled his dad often bringing his poor teammates from youth football over for weekends. “We always were bringing in strays,” Valerie said. “He wants to do his part. He wants to help. Helping is part of his job. He really enjoys what he does now, because it’s a responsibility for him to make sure those police do what they’re supposed to when they have that gun in their hand.”

When the brownies and ice cream came out, I asked whether the family had argued over any of the recent high-profile police killings.

“Michael Brown,” Davenport said, referring to the unarmed 18-year-old killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. “They was all for that poor Michael Brown. The dirty police, they did him wrong. Y’all was ready to picket and tear up Atlanta for Michael Brown.”

Davenport told his family all along that Wilson would not be charged with a crime. There was no apparent distinction between “would not” and “should not” in Davenport’s mind. According to the Justice Department report released by former Attorney General Eric Holder, Brown punched Wilson in the face when confronted, grabbed his gun, was shot in the hand, ran away, then charged back at the officer. The law allowed Wilson to shoot Brown.

When the killing first hit the news, Davenport’s father, Jimmy, was angry. A retired post office supervisor, he was born in 1947 in Wedowee, Alabama, where segregation was the law, white people called him “boy” and there were no black cops. But once the facts of the case came out, Jimmy Davenport agreed with his son.

Jimmy’s wife, Karen, wouldn’t go that far.

“Curtis was talking about the law and what the policeman did. I was talking about the broader perspective of policing,” said Karen, a retired school principal and college administrator.

“If Michael Brown had been white, let’s just play it out,” she continued. “If he had been white and stole something from the store, the police would probably be like, boys will be boys, he didn’t mean to do it. It wouldn’t have escalated.”

Her sergeant son interrupted. “Wait a minute now,” Davenport said. “Did it escalate because of the police officer’s actions? Or did it escalate because of Michael Brown’s actions?”

“It escalated because of both actions,” his mother said. “I think it escalated also because he was a black guy, they said he stole something from the store, and then he became confrontational, and then it escalated.”

“Who became confrontational?” Davenport asked.

“Michael Brown.’’

“So he was the aggressor.”

“My point is, Curtis, if it was a different situation with a different complexion young man, I really wonder if it would have escalated to that extent.”

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, oh, what a party we’d have,” Davenport said.

Everybody laughed. Love filled the room, not the vitriol that tore through America after Brown’s death sparked riots and turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement. But the philosophical chasm remained. Karen Davenport saw Brown’s death in the context of policing as a tool of mass incarceration, in a society rife with racial bias. Sgt. Davenport focused on what he teaches in his course — when the law says an officer can pull the trigger.

De-escalation is only for nonviolent suspects. Otherwise, do what you do.

A scandal in the department

Atlanta buys its heroin in the Bluff, where addicts and dealers lurk in abandoned houses as children play nearby. Davenport worked these west Atlanta streets as an undercover narcotics investigator, making drug buys and serving warrants. Jumping out of an unmarked van, ready to deliver some justice, that was fun. If a suspect wanted to put up a fight, the crew stepped aside and Davenport took him down.

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life,” Davenport said. “Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

He would masquerade as a junkie, walking shirtless into a drug house or wearing a suit and tie like a downtown businessman. Once he was buying crack in a second-floor apartment when two men burst in, fired their guns in the air, and robbed the drug dealers. Davenport thought about pulling his hidden weapon but decided against blowing his cover. That was the closest he ever came to firing his weapon at someone.

In 2006, he was promoted to sergeant and left the squad. Six months later, Davenport’s former narcotics team, led by Officer Gregg Junnier, crept onto a porch in the Bluff, wearing plainclothes. They smashed through the door and burst inside. The homeowner, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, thought she was being burglarized and fired her revolver at the intruders. The officers fired back and killed her.

At first, authorities said police had bought drugs from Johnston’s house that same day. But Johnston’s neighbors knew she was innocent. Soon it was exposed that Junnier lied on the search warrant, lied on other warrants and was breaking other laws too. Junnier and two other officers went to prison.

It hurts Davenport to admit that Junnier, a man he would have taken a bullet for, was a crooked cop. He believes he should have seen it. He wonders how many warrants he served that Junnier falsified. Davenport was never accused of any wrongdoing connected to Junnier’s crimes. But Junnier’s crimes get Davenport accused of wrongdoing just for wearing his uniform.

Yet even after the Johnston scandal, which resulted in an overhaul of the Atlanta Police Department narcotics unit, Davenport doesn’t see systemic problems with policing.

“I would say 98 percent of police officers throughout the country do a fantastic job day in and day out,” he said. “But that never gets publicized, right? You don’t have the family members from somebody you helped on Good Morning America telling about that. But the 2 percent are the guys who make bad decisions and do bad things that gets 98 percent of the publicity.”

There’s a difference, though, between outliers on the police force and in other professions. Those 2 percent of bad cops can ruin lives, even take them.

Davenport accepts that higher level of responsibility and says police departments need to do a better job of identifying problem officers.

“You don’t go from being a good, honest cop to being someone who plants drugs or evidence, or might be a little bit quick to kill. There are other signs. They might take shortcuts prior to that. When we see that we have to report it, and we got to either get them retrained or get rid of them.”

“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”“It’s a different kind of trust we had, where you trust your partner with your life. Is there any greater trust than that? If you’re not in that circle, it’s hard to compare it.”

Engaging the threat

After shooting at the range, Davenport took me to the police academy, where pictures of 39 slain officers hung on a wall. Inside a darkened room was the Milo Range Theater 300, a $120,000 system featuring a circle of five huge video screens that create an immersive training experience.

Since 2015, Atlanta police have killed nine people, including seven African-Americans, two of whom were unarmed, according to The Washington Post’s national database of police killings. That’s about the same number of killings as the comparably sized cities of Kansas City, Missouri, and Long Beach, California.

A half-dozen officers watched as I strapped up with a video-game-type pistol. Davenport said to look for the threat and engage it. I asked what “engage” means.

“You can talk,” he said, “or handle it with your sidearm.”

A scene unfolded: A traffic stop of a pickup truck. I approached on the driver’s side and saw an old man behind the wheel. I asked him to put his hands on the wheel — he did not comply. I demanded that he put his hands out of the car window — nothing. The camera backed away. I was about five paces behind the truck. The man got out. I drew my weapon and yelled at him to lay down on the ground. He kept walking toward the tailgate. I yelled I would shoot if he did not lay down. My heart pounded. I felt frustrated and discombobulated by his refusal to obey. Was he sick? Stupid? The old man grabbed something from the truck bed and spun toward me. I blasted him. He fell down and dropped the gun in his hand. The screen went dark.

Davenport said I could have shot him sooner. But what if he didn’t intend to pull out a weapon?

“What do I care more about?” he said. “Going to jail, or going home alive?”

Another scene: A call about a “disturbance” at a park. Such sketchy information is often all police have to start with. Two young men were talking near a parked car. I questioned them, but they didn’t respond. I put my hand on my gun. They put their hands up and I saw one had a gun in his waistband. A woman suddenly got out of the vehicle and approached me with something in her hand. I almost shot her. She was filming with her phone. I yelled at everybody. She lay down in the road. I felt much more scared with three people than with one. I threatened to shoot the gunman if he didn’t lie down. He bolted toward the woods. I let him go. The screen went dark.

Davenport observed that it’s not against the law in Georgia to carry a gun in your waistband. Nobody had broken any laws in that scenario.

Then Davenport tried one.

Another traffic stop. A young woman got out of her car and put a gun to her head. Davenport went into de-escalation mode. He asked her to calm down. “Let’s talk, let’s just talk, you can put the gun down,” Davenport said. She didn’t listen. Davenport kept talking, his gun in hand but pointed at a 45-degree angle toward the ground.

Was this a nonviolent subject? Could he shoot? Should he?

The woman swung the gun toward Davenport and fired. Davenport let off eight shots. The screen went dark.

The technician played back a recording of the encounter. The woman shot first. Davenport’s first shot missed.

“This might have been my bad day,” he said.

A glimpse inside a high-tech police simulation at the Atlanta PD

The lesson of Jonah

Davenport, an ordained minister for 12 years, is an assistant pastor at Greater Travelers Rest House of Hope Atlanta, performing weddings and baptisms and leading Bible studies. I sat with him one Sunday in a front pew of the majestic 7,000-seat sanctuary, close enough to the concert-grade sound system to feel the stomp-stomp of the bass drum.

Black faces filled the ground-level pews and the two balconies. Stained-glass black faces gazed from the windows behind the choir. Cameras broadcast live on the internet. Aged mothers in white hats and dresses were honored. The band played “I’m Nothing Without You,” “Jesus Is My Help,” “The Lord Is Blessing Me Right Now.” Davenport worshipped calmly, tapping his gator-clad toe to the music, with no waving hands or extra amens.

Then Dr. E. Dewey Smith Jr. got to preaching about Jonah.

God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah rebelled and boarded a ship for Tarshish. Smith described how God sent a storm to afflict Jonah’s ship. His honey-coated voice was calm, but we knew what was coming. Smith described how the terrified sailors started praying to their pagan gods and throwing things overboard.

The ship captain went below and saw Jonah sleeping. “What is this? Sleeping? Get up!” Smith barked, paraphrasing the Scripture. “Pray to your God! Maybe your God will see we are in trouble and rescue us.”

“Jonah!” Smith shouted. “STAY WOKE!”

The congregation bubbled. Davenport remained silent. Pastor Smith is his friend, but Davenport knew what was coming.

“Stay woke and see it’s OK for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to get shot in Minnesota,” the pastor said. “It’s OK for police to shoot somebody live on camera with a baby in the back seat, who has gun ownership and a license to carry and see him get five bullets into him and the officer is acquitted and gets paid to leave with no repercussions! It’s OK for a 2-year-old baby to get shot in Minnesota, an 80-year-old woman to get shot in Minnesota, a 12-year-old — all unarmed — to get shot in Minnesota and nothing happens. But as soon as a woman is shot, whose skin is much, much lighter than yours and mine, then all of a sudden the police chief has to resign! All these other folk got shot and nothing ever happened! I gotta tell you, you better STAY WOKE!”

The congregation exploded in agreement, a bullet aimed at the heart of a servant who believes in the nobility of policing. Davenport’s face betrayed no emotion as he balanced between the black and the blue.

Halftime is game time: An oral history of ‘Drumline’ Nick Cannon, Zoe Saldana, Dallas Austin and more on the film’s legacy and its fictional — but real — HBCU marching band



Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

Drumline is inspired by the life of Grammy-winning super-producer Dallas Austin, who created massive hits with Boyz II Men, TLC, Madonna and more. Austin’s life in music began during his days on his high school band’s drumline, and the 2002 film is the coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old hotshot New York drummer who’s recruited to join the marching band of the fictional historically black Atlanta A&T University.

Nick Cannon stars as Devon Miles, who arrives on campus and quickly outshines senior drum section leader Sean Taylor (Leonard Roberts) and forces band director Dr. Lee (Orlando Jones) to reconsider his approach to musicianship. In the process, Devon wins the heart of upperclassman dancer Laila, portrayed by then up-and-comer Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Guardians of the Galaxy). But when Devon’s ego gets the better of him, he’s kicked out of the band and forced to fight his way back onto the drumline, while learning the value of teamwork.

The film was the sophomore effort of Charles Stone III’s film career. He made a name for himself with the iconic (and CLIO Hall of Fame) “Whassup” Budweiser ad campaign, and his directorial debut was 2002’s dark and authoritative ’hood saga Paid In Full. Drumline, which was shot mainly at Clark Atlanta University, raked in a total of $57 million at the box office.

The idea of marching bands consisting of “uncool” kids was laid to rest with the premiere of Fox 2000’s Drumline. The beloved film successfully makes the case that marching bands, especially those found at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the South, are melting pots of artistic athleticism. Drumline showed the world that band members not only train like the pros but also compete like champions.

Everyone quoted is identified by the titles they held during the Drumline era.

First Quarter: Drummer Boys

Before he produced Boyz II Men’s nine-times platinum 1991 Cooleyhighharmony at the age of 19, or won his first Grammy for producing TLC’s then futuristic 1999 FanMail, or worked with Madonna, The Brand New Heavies, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Fishbone, Monica, Michael Jackson and even Deion Sanders, Dallas Austin played snare drum in his high school marching band. The Atlanta (by way of Columbus, Georgia) producer joined the drumline at Columbus High School when his older brother, Claude, a section leader, graduated. With talent far beyond his freshman classification, Austin experienced pushback from the new section leader, who attempted to haze him and expose him to the band director for not being able to read music. Austin’s high school experience is the story of Drumline, a film he pitched at 20th Century Fox in the early 1990s. “Fox said, ‘What’s so interesting about marching bands?’” recalled Austin, who gave studio executives a peek at footage from a high school battle of the bands at the Georgia Dome. His project was greenlit, and a script, by Shawn Schepps, was drafted.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie went into turnaround hell for eight to 10 years.

Jody GersonProducer

One day, Dallas and I are having a conversation. I asked, ‘What happened with Drumline?’ He said, ‘It just didn’t go anywhere. … I haven’t heard anything.’

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The movie was just sitting … but I felt like the story needed to be told. … I called Quincy Jones one day, and I was like, ‘Man, what do I do?’ He wasn’t trying to be funny or nothing, but he said, ‘You ain’t gonna make it in that industry unless you got somebody who’s Jewish on your side.’

Jody GersonProducer

I said, ‘What if I brought it to my friend Wendy Finerman [Forrest Gump, I Like It Like That, The Devil Wears Prada], who has a deal at Fox, and we produce it together?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

They came to me and said, ‘What do we do?’

Jody GersonProducer

Wendy, Dallas and I went to Elizabeth Gabler, who was the head of Fox 2000. Dallas pitched her.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I actually wanted to talk Fox out of the movie — I wanted to get it back.

Jody GersonProducer

He told us these stories about how ‘halftime was game time’ in the South, and it was not about the football game as much as it was about the marching band. And about how many of his peers in the music business started their careers on drumlines.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

She goes, ‘Well, damn, we’ve got to make this movie.’

Jody GersonProducer

Elizabeth only wanted to add one thing: ‘Can we make it in college as opposed to high school?’

Wendy FinermanProducer

So we basically started from scratch.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I still have not read the first draft of Drumline … but what was originally pitched felt like a suburban band movie, where a black kid comes to a white, uptight school and brings the funk to the school. … The only thing I knew was that the main character couldn’t read. He was illiterate. I thought, ‘No way could I rewrite this.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t like the racial implications, or what I perceived to be the potential racial implications, of doing that kind of story.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

The first script was too comedic.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I spoke with the band director at Florida A&M [Dr. Julian E. White]. He started mentioning so much about the practices and the culture and just the fabric of what it means to become a band member at an HBCU. He kept saying, ‘You have to see it.’ I went to … hot, muggy Southern Florida. The whole town was just vibrating from the football field at night. They’d practice late nights when the sun went down, and early mornings, because of the heat. And there were always alumni around the field … and they’ve got snakes around their neck; their school mascot is a rattlesnake. I underestimated the richness of the world inside of the band. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be something … ’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I’d passed on the first script, and then six months later or so, it came back with a historically black college, and that was more interesting. The new script allowed me the opportunity to explore percussion … and a style of marching band — the show style — that was much more alluring, more magnetic. Then, learning more about what these kids go through, it was just like a sport, you know? I went to one of the summer training camps, and it’s the exact same thing — a real grind. That’s what inspired me to do it as a full-blown, big sports movie.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

From the first conversation I had with Charles, he’s like, ‘These are musicians, but this is a sports movie.’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I got a call from Donna Isaacson, who was head of casting for 20th Century Fox. Then Charles and I had lunch at the Beverly Wilshire and talked about the character of Dr. Lee, and the scope, and how he was looking to shoot it. He talked about how he’d dramatize the element of halftime at historically black colleges.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I was excited about the fact that Hollywood was actually telling the story of a part of the experience of attending a historically black college.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It felt like such a young, hip and super unique college story about young people trying to make a name for themselves. … I just felt happy and grateful to be doing a film about a piece of American culture … and a side of American college life that hasn’t really been tapped on enough.

Jody GersonProducer

But the studio kept focusing on a white character. That we had to have a white character to market the movie.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I got a call from Fox. They said, ‘Dallas, we don’t know how to say this, but put white people in the movie.’ I said, ‘OK, how many white people do you want?’ They said, ‘We want somebody in the band. … We have to have a character, because now it’s turning into a black movie.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The studio wanted a white character in the midst of this ensemble of color in order to support or give us the amount of money we wanted. We needed $20 million to make it. They were offering us $15 million.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

First, it was a $13 million movie, which is a lot for an urban film, so to speak, at that time. I was trying to tell them, it’s not an urban film, it’s a story … it’s a team story. We started going over $13 million, because nobody knew what it was like to film 300-piece marching bands.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I said, ‘Let me see how a white kid’s story would be inside of a black marching band without making it ridiculous.’ I go to Morris Brown College one day, and I see this kid. He’s one of the cymbal players, a white kid with red hair. I said, ‘Where’d you come from?’ He said, ‘In Atlanta, down the street. I’ve always wanted to be in the band because I grew up in the neighborhood.’ We followed that story into GQ’s character.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

I got this appointment for Drumline … and Charles was like, ‘Hey, can you play the drum?’ … I wasn’t trained growing up, playing the drums, but I’m a musician. So I saw the question as, ‘Do you have rhythm?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck yeah, I got rhythm.’ It’s funny that I ended up getting the role where the guy has rhythm issues.

“In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.”Charles Stone III

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I got a hold of the script and really dug the idea. Then, I met with Charles …

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Leonard wasn’t my first pick for Sean. The studio wanted Leonard because he has this beautiful, booming voice, and he’s really good-looking. I thought he was fine in his audition, but I liked Khalil Kain [Juice, Girlfriends, Love Jones] who was good. He was a real antagonist, which is what I liked. … I had to fight the head of Fox 2000. I finally gave up.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

I met with Charles over at Fox. … I got there early and was hanging out. At the time, I’d just done He Got Game with Spike Lee, and I drove a Range Rover in the movie. At that time, it was the nicest car I’d ever driven. I was like, Man, when I get my money, I’d love to have one of these. So I’m sitting at Fox, looking out the window. I see this Range pull up. The window comes down, and it’s Nick Cannon.

Second Quarter: Funky Drummers

The late 1990s and early 2000s? This was before Nick Cannon was really Nick Cannon, although flashes of stardom were apparent. A stand-up comedian from San Diego, he burst onto the Hollywood scene on Nickelodeon’s youth sketch comedy series All That and teen sitcom Kenan & Kel. At age 17, through his work on All That, Cannon became the youngest writer in television history. That talent and charisma led Nickelodeon to give him his own spinoff, The Nick Cannon Show, which launched in 2002 with Cannon starring, producing and directing. While casting for Drumline’s lead role of Devon Miles, a me-against-the-world snare drummer from Harlem who secretly couldn’t read music, screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism remembers sitting in producer Wendy Finerman’s office going through audition tapes. One especially stood out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I started to hear about all of the different people who were auditioning. I really thought, I don’t know if I’m going to get it.

Jody GersonProducer

I remember a really young Lil Wayne coming in for an audition.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

T.I. auditioned, too. He represented another part of my character, in a different way. But I felt like Nick, at the time, was closer to ‘me’ because I wasn’t overly cocky. I just knew what I was doing.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I definitely saw something in Devon. It was me … I was probably the same knucklehead who thought he knew it all. That’s … why I embodied the character so well.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Nick … had something that made me vote for him. He was cute, and he was a very talented, strong actor. He was able to show the bad boy but add a vulnerability to it that made it charming. None of the other actors even hinted at vulnerability.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to Nick and Lee Thompson Young [The Famous Jett Jackson, Rizzoli & Isles].

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They auditioned me like three or four times. In the screen test, they team you up with different people. They teamed me with Zoe Saldana. I didn’t know who she was, but there was something there.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I didn’t know that much about him … but everybody said great things about him. Once I met him, he certainly did not disappoint me.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

A friend of mine, Kim Porter, I’ve been knowing her since kindergarten. By the time we got to high school … we were kind of flirty and datey. We were in band together — she played bells. … Zoe’s character, Laila, was kind of written after Kim. … I was kind of looking for a girl who reminded me of Kim and was close to what she looked like.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Laila … I felt like she was a relatable character. … I really liked how they’d written her to be — genuinely, like, a nice person.

Wendy FinermanProducer

Zoe … you could imagine somebody falling in love with her at first sight. She had a smartness to her that was really important for her character. She carried herself like a Spelman girl.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I remember me even having a crush on Zoe. … I think she had a boyfriend at the time, though …

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

He was really funny. There was a serenity to Nick’s demeanor that was very pleasant.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

It got down to between Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington. Zoe had a realism to her. I mean, she’s fine as all hell, both her and Kerry. But Kerry had a refined technique that … for me, at the time, was a little too refined.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

That screen test, it just felt right. I had actually had a conversation with Charles the night before. I had been doing Nickelodeon work, and he was like, ‘I want you to be you. I don’t want you to bring in any of the TV persona.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Nick had raw talent … a boyishness that didn’t feel manufactured, or like he was performing. He was also so passionate to get the job.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I got the call and … I’m gonna be honest, I was just happy to have booked a job. I didn’t know how big, culturally, it was going to be.

Third Quarter: Give the drummer some

Drumline’s fictional Atlanta A&T needed a legit HBCU marching band, and Dallas Austin trusted only one person to deliver. Don Roberts, then band director at Atlanta’s Southwest DeKalb High School, received a phone call from Austin, who asked to attend one of his band’s rehearsals. Under Roberts’ tutelage, the Marching Panthers, through performances at the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl, had become one of the most recognizable bands in Atlanta and the entire nation. Austin was a huge fan. “He came to band rehearsal with his entourage,” said Roberts, a former Florida A&M drum major and the executive consultant on the ESPN/The Undefeated HBCU Band Rankings. “They watched for a little while, and then he said, ‘I wanna talk to you about this project … this movie that’s gonna be coming out two years from now.’” A year later, Roberts got a call from Drumline line producer Timothy Bourne and was brought on as the film’s executive band consultant, tasked with building Atlanta A&T’s band from the ground up. He formed a small team that included two percussion instructors, Keith Sailor and Demetrius Hubert, bass drum coach Corey Lowe and dance coach Glenda Morton. Most of the Atlanta A&T band you see in Drumline is made up of high school students from Southwest DeKalb. As for the drumline? A mix of real HBCU drummers and actors put through training hell.

Wendy FinermanProducer

We assembled the drumline long before we started shooting, because we wanted to make it as authentic as possible.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I knew the work Don was doing. If he could do it with kids, then of course he could put a fictional band together that would be just as good.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

I feel like I owe them all apologies. I didn’t know actors were supposed to be pampered. I don’t want to use the word ‘hazing,’ but, man, they went through it. We treated them as we would first-year band members.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I played in my eighth-grade band. It was a little marching band. The stuff that we were doing in comparison to what we were doing in Drumline? Man, it was small potatoes. Was I prepared? Hell no.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I come from New York, and my sister stepped in high school as a cheerleader, but I didn’t really know that much about the whole Southern HBCU band and dance culture. I was in for a ride.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

We got to Atlanta in late winter of 2001, and we were in music class at Southwest DeKalb High School. Immersing ourselves in it became an all-consuming thing.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Imagine Nick Cannon in a high school band, [next to] my drum players holding the sticks. We did that.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Nick and myself arrived two weeks prior to everyone else’s first day. We were each assigned a drum coach. I had my homie Corey Lowe on the big bass drum teaching me. Nick had this dude named Snoop, who was teaching him the snare.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

The actors get there, and we see they don’t know about drumming at all. So the real drummers, we’re laughing and making jokes, but at the same time we feel some type of way. We’re like, Oh, OK. Hollywood wants to make a movie about drumlines and HBCU culture in the South, but you have actors supposed to be doing this drumming? Like, who is Nick Cannon?

“I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.”Zoe Saldana

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I didn’t want a drum double. I remember telling Charles, ‘I want to figure out how to do it myself.’ But some of the stuff was so intricate … if I had to have a double, I wanted the best. Snoop was the best.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

All Nick carried around with him throughout that time were drumsticks. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude is really in this.’ He’s beating on tables with drumsticks … he’s flipping the sticks in the air. He’s in his trailer working one of the pads, getting the sticking down.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

In the beginning he would drop them everywhere, and by the time we started shooting he knew how to move these drumsticks so swiftly through his fingers. It was great to see how committed he was to this part.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

Nick was dedicated to getting better. One time he got frustrated … and kind of threw the sticks down. I was like, ‘Oh, you don’t want to play anymore?’ He said, ‘Man, I’m not going to need this after this movie anyway.’ I told him, ‘Yeah, but right now you need this, so you might as well pick up the sticks, because this is your job right now.’

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

At one point … my hand had ripped open. My drum was covered in blood. I had a big gouge taken out of my finger from the repetition of using this mallet … I played through that shit.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It was literally like boot camp. We’d show up to set, eyes red. Some people would get sick … we were doing B-12 shots. I developed hard scars on the side of my abdomen — it was scar tissue from the weight and pressure of the drum.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Everybody worked really, really hard on their characters. It wasn’t like our characters had easy things to do. They were musicians, we were dancers, and we had to practice. There were a lot of rehearsals, a lot of choreography, and a lot of routines and instruments to learn to sort of maneuver.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

… I’m over here struggling with this tuba, trying to hold it and at least pretend like I know what I’m doing.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

You couldn’t be pretending to do any of this.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I was drumming, as well. … For me, it was wanting to understand exactly what the drumlines were going through and wanting to understand what my role as leader of that band was. That was taught to me by Don Roberts.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We put the baton in his hand and had to show him how to conduct. You want to look like a real band director or people were going to chew you up. … The choreographer with the dancers, Glenda Morton, she did the same thing with Zoe. She drilled her.

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

Zoe worked super hard learning all the dances. She never let up.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

I thought it was a little odd for her at first because there’s such a sassy, black Southern girl thing that goes along with it. But once she settled into her character, it became second nature. Anything is awkward like that at first … shaking your hips like that.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

Here I am with a classical ballet background, and I just had no mobility in my hips. … I definitely trained a lot … by the end, I felt like I could drop it like it’s hot.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

We worked the crap out of those guys and they took it. They were not Hollywood. They were not too big for this. They came in and they sweated. … I remember [assistant percussion director] Keith Sailor, he started calling the guys ‘The Senate.’ … We brought it back to Charles … and the next thing I knew, it was in the script.

Fourth Quarter: Different Drummers

The first time the Atlanta A&T marching band took the field on camera was week two of shooting, for “The Halftime Show.” Freshman phenom Devon Miles was named a P-1 snare on A&T’s drumline, and in the tunnel of the football stadium, he anxiously awaited his debut performance. Cinematographer Hurlbut envisioned the scene taking shape in a huge tunnel, like the one the USC football team emerges from at the 93,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. What he had to work with was the tiny tunnel of Clark Atlanta’s Panther Stadium. Capacity: 5,000 seats.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

I was like, ‘All right. So how can we make this work? … What if we just pile the whole band in that tunnel? Not just the drumline, but everyone.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

They’re in this tunnel and you can hear the thumping and the noise outside, the cheering and stuff, but it’s muffled. Then Sean and Devon have an argument, then … the football team comes pouring in, and that adds another sonic layer of commotion.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

I had the tagline of the movie during that scene … ‘Down here, it’s about the marching bands … Halftime is game time.’ It really is that serious … it’s life.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

You see Dr. Lee come in, and he goes, ‘One band, one sound!’ … You see that long tunnel of fluorescent lights … all of a sudden, this stick comes up in the frame and goes completely parallel across the image. Then, it just goes tap, tap, tap, tap. Then, it’s like, BOOM, they explode.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

Coming out of the tunnel all hype, it was cold, we were yelling, there were so many people out there. It was late at night. We were like, Let’s get it.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.

Wendy FinermanProducer

The first moment the band was together, you kind of go, ‘Oh, my God, I get this.’ The sound. Your body. Your heart. Everything is pounding internally. … It’s really a physical experience.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

I had no idea how stylized this movie was going to be. … Charles and Shane did a great job.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Everything about it felt like I was in a dream, but it felt like I had walked this dream before in real life.

“When Devon is going onto the field for the first time — go back and watch Gladiator, it feels like the same thing. But instead of lions and swords, it’s drums and sticks.”Leonard Roberts

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The sound hits you like a wave. I’ll never forget that feeling. I was like, God damn, this is so inspiring. This is unbelievable. Halftime is game time. I tried to make it as big and grand as possible. This was Devon’s first game. He gets out there, he sees the crowd, he kind of starts to freak out, he fails.

In this moment, A&T’s senior drum section leader Sean Taylor, played by Leonard Roberts, steps up for a solo. After overcoming his nerves, Devon Miles, played by Nick Cannon, follows suit, stealing the spotlight from Sean. Most of Cannon’s drumming in this scene is done by Jason “Snoop” Price.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

It was stick-around-the-head, stick-around-the-head.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

You see the stuff that’s me. And those super close shots usually are Snoop.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We filmed that part a couple of times because I couldn’t feel my frickin’ fingers … my fingers were frozen. It was so cold in Atlanta. … I made the solo up and everything, but I had to go up into the studio and do it again so it could come out really crisp and clean.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

We had to make sure everything was crisp — whatever it took to make it real.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

They were able to mix all the drumming in afterwards in the edit, so they didn’t miss a beat. Every time that stick hit the snare, it popped. It sang. They made me seem like I was crazy with it. As the filming went on, you saw a bunch of wide shots. If you watch the last drum battle, it’s nothing but wide shots. By that time … I’d picked up all of the cadences.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

By the time we got to the final scene? No doubles.

Fifth Quarter: Drum Machine

Drumline’s halftime scene was beautiful, but the entire film relied upon the cast and crew nailing the fictional BET Big Southern Classic. For this battle of the bands, Drumline received the keys to the Georgia Dome. Within a tight, two-day window, everybody and their mama showed up: ESPN broadcaster Stuart Scott called the event from the booth. Blu Cantrell sang the national anthem. 106 & Park hosts A.J. and Free MC’d the spectacle. And rapper Petey Pablo, who drove a Bentley onto the field, performed with Morris Brown’s actual band. It seemed all of Atlanta came out to watch real-life marching bands, which also included Bethune-Cookman, Clark Atlanta and Grambling State, square off against the Hollywood-crafted Atlanta A&T. Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Southern’s Human Jukebox, however, were noticeably absent. “Both of them gave the same answers,” Don Roberts remembers, and paraphrases: Thank you for the invitation to participate; however, we don’t lose. Not in real life and not in fiction.

As the story goes, the competition ended in a tie between Morris Brown and Atlanta A&T, whose Jackson 5-inspired, old school-meets-new-school routine was nothing short of amazing. To decide which band would emerge as victor, each team’s drumlines went toe-to-toe. But as the film’s crew prepared for the final scene, which screenwriter Tina Gordon Chism modeled after the drumline battles that often unfolded near team buses after games, Stone and Hurlbut faced a problem.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

The producers came to me: ‘We can’t afford to fill the Georgia Dome for more than two days … We can’t use CGI, we can’t do tiling, we can’t do any of this stuff.’ I remember going home and waking up in the middle of the night. … I go, ‘What if we turn the lights off?

Charles Stone IIIDirector

Shane came up with a great idea of shooting it like it’s a boxing match. … All the lights would drop out except for the overheads on the field.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Nick was hell-bent … ‘I’m doing all my scenes. I’m not going to have a stand-in, no double, nothing.’ The same thing with Leonard. Nick stayed up pretty much all night long in the hotel, working.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We really did stay up all night, just drilling, drilling, drilling. We kept going over the cadences. You drop the sticks? OK, pick them up again. I told Nick, ‘If you want this to just be you in the end scene, we’re going to have to grind it out.’ And he was a champ — he grinded it out.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be real. You see all these movies where they cut to the double. If I’m supposed to be the best, I wanted to do everything I could do to be the best.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Sometimes scenes in movies are shot out of sequence … but this purposefully and necessarily was shot at the very end of shooting because they needed us, the five actors in the drumline, to be as on-point as humanly possible, so that we actually did beat Morris Brown’s drumline.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were so immersed in our characters, and the Atlanta A&T band, that in our minds, when we did that scene, we really believed we were better than Morris Brown.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

You could feel the tension. Everyone on the crew was like, ‘Holy shit. Our boys are going to war right now, and we’re getting to watch it.’ There was this feeling in the air of do-or-die time.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

The real-life drummers … they didn’t feel that great about actors portraying drummers on a drumline that they’d sacrificed and worked very hard to get on [in real life]. They weren’t that impressed. So it was like boxers before a fight, all that trash-talking.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I was kind of stoking that fire a little bit, supporting both sides to bring it, you know? I actually wore a T-shirt I had made … a Morris Brown T-shirt and an Atlanta A&T T-shirt, cut in half and then sewed together. It was an ugly-ass looking shirt … but I wore it in solidarity or just support for both teams.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

One of the best parts of being in the marching band was when … the drumlines would go on afterwards. … Those battles were very intense.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

To this day, one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done is that fucking one that lays on the 50-yard line, and it’s a sea of black, but the 50-yard line is lit, and those two bands come in from the side and just line up right next to each other.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was like a Rocky moment.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

But I’ll tell you straightforward, the first time we did the scene, Morris Brown kicked Atlanta A&T’s ass.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

Morris Brown fired up a drum cadence that was so sexy … it was like, If you guys win in this movie, it’s gonna be because of some Hollywood shit.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

They were a seasoned drumline that had been playing for years. We were a drumline that was built in a couple of weeks. If you look at it, we made this movie at the end of the marching season. They’d already been playing these cadences the whole season. They were so tight that it was like, what can we do to top this? We had actors in our drumline. We had actors on the snare line. We had actors on the tenor line. We had actors on the bass line. But that couldn’t hold us back.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

We had to learn new cadences at the 11th hour just because Morris Brown came in smoking.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

After Charles jumped down my throat, I jumped down my staff’s, and we all literally went around the corner at the Georgia Dome, found us a quiet spot … and the guys went to work. Nick went to work. … They took it up a whole notch and elevated the routine. When they came back, it was war. I mean, these guys were not speaking, and Charles was like, ‘Let it stay that way.’ It was like two boxers that were about to fight. These guys were not speaking.

Shay RoundtreeUpperclassman bass Big Rob

It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle. … You wanted to kill them, especially after they’d smoked us in the rehearsal.

Candace CareyFreshman snare Deidre

There was an actual fight before we started filming. There was someone from Morris Brown that was on our side, playing with our group. And they checked him. Morris Brown really checked dude … like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Get him over here.’ He left from our side and went over to Morris Brown.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

People were hot, and you want that.

Charles Stone IIIDirector

The percussion instructor brought me over to see what Morris Brown had cooking up. … They showed me them putting their own drums aside and [simulated] playing on the other [team’s] snares, and I thought, that’s fucking awesome.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

Charles goes, ‘Morris Brown is going to go over there and bang on A&T’s drums … we need a close-up camera here, so the reaction is absolutely real.’

Charles Stone IIIDirector

I didn’t tell Atlanta A&T that that’s what was gonna happen.

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

Beating on someone else’s drum is a big no-no. It’s a big dis … basically like they were trying to injure the other team’s quarterback.

“It got to the point where we lost the fact that we were in a movie. … It was a real battle.”Shay Roundtree

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

When it happened, I think I just remember everybody freaking out, and it was the exact reaction that Morris Brown wanted.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

I knew that was going to happen, so when they walked up, I was preparing myself, but the rest of the drummers didn’t know.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

We were shocked. We took that as a real insult. It was like, Oh, shit. The reactions that you saw from Nick and everybody were real.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

They looked like, What the fuck? What happened just now? Did they really just hit my drum? I really gotta stay in formation while they’re doing this?

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We had to show that ability to withstand and hold it all in. It meant a lot when it happened, and we were hot about it. We went back and said, ‘Well, we gon’ beat on their drums.’ But it was like, ‘Nah, that’s kind of redundant.’

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We added — I don’t want to say a gymnast approach, but added different elements … more jumps, more flips, not stick flips but more people doing flips, people getting on other people’s shoulders. Cymbal players getting on other people’s shoulders, doing pushups and playing at the same time, getting on your back and having somebody play the bass drum. We added a different entertaining, performance element.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

Charles would have to say, ‘Cut,’ maybe four or five different times because we were just fully focused.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

Our drumline wins … but nobody cared that that’s what was written on the script.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

We laid it all out there. When you see that last and final cadence, that’s probably the one I worked on the hardest, and you get to actually see. We’re in there drumming, and sticking, throwing the sticks and catching the sticks, doing everything. By that time, we were a well-oiled machine.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

What you saw was real. Those boys were in there. They were in there playing. They were doing their thing.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

Atlanta A&T gave Morris Brown way more go than anybody thought they would.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

I’m super proud of that scene. That scene is special.

The Postgame: The Legacy of Drumline

In 2014, the Atlanta A&T marching band returned in Drumline: A New Beat. Originally conceived as a miniseries, it became a made-for-TV movie, told through the lens of a young female drummer who arrives on campus hoping to revitalize the fictional HBCU’s once-revered drumline. In the movie, Nick Cannon and Leonard Roberts both reprise their original roles as the now long-graduated Devon Miles and Sean Taylor. Cannon, Wendy Finerman and Jody Gerson are all credited as producers, and Don Roberts once again serves as executive band consultant. “It was executed well,” said Cannon, “but I think the higher-ups didn’t give it an opportunity to thrive as a television show.” Fifteen years since the film’s debut, the legacy of Drumline is undeniable.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

The legacy of Drumline grows, and continues to grow. No one saw it coming. They thought it was just this little film about this cool subculture.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

It ended up being one of the best-reviewed films that year … very successful, and I cried when that happened, because I was rooting for this movie from the beginning. It felt like we won.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Who would’ve thought that Fox’s little project in Atlanta was going to be the epic cult classic, and beyond cult classic now, that it is today? It’s been run on TV for so long that actually, 15 years later, I get recognized more now than I did in the years right after it came out, because it’s so embedded in people’s consciousnesses.

Zoe SaldanaUpperclassman dancer Laila

We were told we were all a part of a little movie that ended up being a very big thing in America. A lot of young people took to it and supported it.

Tina Gordon ChismScreenwriter

I’m amazed that now it’s getting to the point where … you can actually see another generation discover Drumline.

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.”GQ

Earl PoitierFreshman tuba Charles

I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘How do you feel to have influenced a whole generation of young people?’

Orlando JonesBand director Dr. Lee

I’m really proud of what Drumline spawned into the culture.

Jason WeaverFreshman bass Ernest

I’ll be honest. I thought that really only our community, meaning the black community, was going to be able to appreciate it. … Historically black colleges, the experience of bands, that’s something that’s deeply rooted within our culture and something that, prior to Drumline, was never really talked about and never really exposed.

Shane HurlbutCinematographer

People come up to me to this day, not one of them who are African-American, and they tell me how we introduced a subculture to them that they never knew existed … but that it inspired them.

GQFreshman bass Jayson Flore

Drumline crossed over into … every part of the population — but it’s a black film. … To me, that’s revolutionary.

Jason “Snoop” PriceA drummer in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 and Nick Cannon’s stunt and percussion double

We were taking something from black culture and showing it to the world, so it had to be right. It had to be correct. This was the first time that the world was going to see anything about an HBCU marching band or drumline.

Wendy FinermanProducer

No one knew about drumlines. Now they’re common knowledge.

Don RobertsExecutive band consultant

Florida A&M thought the movie was about them. North Carolina A&T thought the movie was about them. Southern thought it was about them. Jackson State thought it was about them. Everybody sees themselves in the movie. … When I talk to these college band directors, and they see their band program in Drumline, I just feel honored that we honored them.

Leonard RobertsSenior drum section leader Sean Taylor

It was part music movie, part sports movie, part superhero origin story. All of those things wrapped up in one.

Nick CannonFreshman snare Devon Miles

It’s the fifth quarter. We were just as important, if not more important than the football team. It was a music movie, a sports movie, all in one. That’s why it was really special.

Dallas AustinExecutive producer (film and soundtrack), music supervisor

It’s a sports film — the discipline, and the practice. It goes hand in hand with football. It just wasn’t as cool to be in the marching band until Drumline.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

Where they are now:

Dallas Austin: Runs Atlanta’s Urban Angels Studios (formerly known as D.A.R.P. Studios), while also recording out of the United Kingdom’s TAPE London studio. He is also one half of the band, Follow the Nomad, with Naz Tokio.

Nick Cannon: Second-year student at Howard University, executive producer and host of MTV’s Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ’N Out, founder/CEO of Ncredible Entertainment.

Candace Carey: Stars as “Canbe” in the indie film Ratchetville, scheduled to release on Netflix in winter of 2017.

Tina Gordon Chism: Made directorial debut with 2013’s Peeples, screenplay writer/executive producer for Hulu’s 2017 single-camera comedy pilot Crushed and screenplay writer for the forthcoming Nappily Ever After.

Wendy Finerman: Executive producer of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and Lifetime’s new Loved by the 10th Date; founder/president of Wendy Finerman productions.

GQ: Founder and creative director of Q Brothers, a collective that translates classic pieces of literature into hip-hop musicals, which he co-writes, directs, and stars in. He and his brothers’ plays have toured the world and run off-Broadway.

Jody Gerson: Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Publishing.

Shane Hurlbut: Recent cinematography work includes 2015’s Gabriele Muccino-directed Fathers and Daughters and 2017’s The Babysitter and The Adventurers.

Orlando Jones: Recent work includes starring in films Book of Love and Madiba, the STARZ series American Gods and executive producing Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands: War Within the Cartel for Amazon and Twitch.

Earl Poitier: Recent appearances include The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Shots Fired and Baywatch.

Jason Price: Founder of entertainment company P.O.P. (Power of Percussion) UNPLUGGED, and artistic director of P.O.P.’D (Power of Percussion & Drums) entertainment ensemble.

Don Roberts: Director and CEO of international stage show DRUMLine Live; executive band consultant of 2014’s Drumline: A New Beat and BET series The Quad.

Leonard Roberts: Recent appearances include American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Magicians.

Shay Roundtree: Recently starred in 2016’s Save Me from Love.

Zoe Saldana: Stars as “Gamora” in 2018 Marvel film Avengers: Infinity War; filming Avatar 2, set to release in 2020.

Charles Stone III: Director of the forthcoming Uncle Drew, starring Kyrie Irving, LilRel Howry, Shaquille O’Neal, Lisa Leslie, and Reggie Miller. In theaters June 29, 2018.

Jason Weaver: Has appeared in 2006’s ATL, 2010’s Lottery Ticket, the animated series The LeBrons (2011–2014), and a 2016 episode of Black-ish.

What do independence and freedom mean to black college students? It’s about music, fireworks and discussion of America and our so-called independence

The Fourth of July has come and gone, but conversations about freedom and independence don’t get old … especially among black college students.

Webster’s Dictionary says freedom is the power to act without restraint, while it defines independence as not requiring or relying on others. How do students feel about the two?

America’s birthday seems to be inextricably tied with fireworks, barbecues and feuds over its significance. Some students simply describe the federal holiday as a day off work. Others joined Chance the Rapper in calling it Malia Obama Day.

When asked about music that inspired or made them think of independence, students spoke highly of songs that encourage economic independence, social justice and hope for black folks:

  • “The Story of O.J.” by Jay-Z
  • “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
  • “Someday We’ll All Be Free” by Donny Hathaway
  • “Revolution” by Arrested Development
  • “The Conquering Lion” by Lauryn Hill
  • “Change” by J. Cole
  • “Glory” by John Legend and Common
  • “16 Shots” by Vic Mensa
  • “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar
  • “F.U.B.U.” by Solange Knowles
  • “Where Do We Go” by Solange Knowles
  • “Candles in the Sun” by Miguel
  • “They Don’t Really Care About Us” by Michael Jackson
  • “Wake Up Everybody” by Teddy Pendergrass

These songs come out of different generations and genres, but the common chord they share is one of unity, equality and perseverance. The beats are so good and the messages are so timeless, this playlist could stay on repeat any day of the week.

Besides music, some college students can point to individuals who are advancing the black community and America at large.

“I think everyone in opposition to the president is actually making America great; Auntie Maxine and Auntie Kamala, I see you!” said Arielle Wallace, 21, a senior at Hampton University.

“Ethnic and social diversity makes America great,” said Demetrius Smith, 36, an alumnus of Morehouse College. “Those outside of the dominant culture hold America accountable to its ideals, which results in slow yet continuous advancement of American society.”

“The charitable donations that Russell Westbrook’s Why Not? Foundation have made to the OKC and L.A. communities has taken another approach other than usual athletes by focusing on education and family service programs while encouraging youth to believe in themselves and ultimately ask, ‘Why not?’ of any situation,” said Jordan Frank, 21, a senior at Clark Atlanta University.

Jenise Williams, 20, a senior at the University of Michigan, sees Independence Day as a time to be with family.

“The Fourth of July is just about me coming together with my friends and family despite all of the craziness of America and the world in general.”

Michigan State sophomore Andrei Nichols questions whether the celebration is premature for people of color.

“For some Americans, it is a time to celebrate freedom that was said to have been granted,” said Nichols, 19. “However, as a black man in America, [I don’t think] freedom was ever granted to people of color. But, hey, what do I know?”

Celebrating America’s independence from British rule may happen once a year, but the fight for individual and collective freedom never stops.

Clark Atlanta University has named Tomisha Brock its first female band director Brock ‘wants to be an advocate for female band directors nationwide’

This college football season, educator and accomplished director Tomisha Brock will be storming the field, directing Clark Atlanta University’s (CAU) Mighty Marching Panthers band to bring the noise and the funk.

At 35, Brock is CAU’s first female band director and one of five women directing college band programs nationwide. The announcement came early in June, and in Brock’s first year at CAU she’s inherited a program with fewer than a dozen students. She’s launched an aggressive recruiting campaign, complete with scholarships, in hopes of growing the band to at least 65 members by the fall.

A native of Smithfield, Virginia, Brock has directed bands at the high school and college levels. Before coming to Clark, she served as associate director of bands at Mississippi Valley State University. Before that, she was director of university bands at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.

In 2016, Brock was named Spectacular Magazine‘s Woman of the Year in the education category. In October 2013, she was honored by the Northeastern North Carolina chapter of the National Council of Negro Women. Brock earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Virginia State University, a master’s degree from Norfolk State University and a doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

The Undefeated caught up with Brock recently to talk about what she’s up to at CAU. The Mighty Marching Panthers’ mantra this year is “Watch out – The Rebirth.”


Were you in the band in high school?

I started playing clarinet at 10 years old. I played in the marching band throughout high school. I was active in concert and marching band in college at Virginia State University. I was the section leader for 3½ years.

How does music education help young people?

It’s extremely important that music is a part of everyone’s education — it’s basic education. Music is important for having critical thinking skills. It helps to make you a total person. It helps you in terms of being able to focus and concentrate. For those students who have a hard time expressing themselves, music gives them an opportunity to do so free from judgment, because there is no right or wrong way to play music.

Since you are recruiting, what do you look for in students?

I look for students who are dedicated and dependable. They don’t have to be the best students, just students who are academically sound. We’ll make sure they keep their grades up. They have to be admitted to Clark Atlanta University or one of our partnering community colleges.

What’s unique about the HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) band experience?

There’s no other experience like it, being able to play the latest songs on the radio. The hype surrounding an HBCU program draws students. We play R&B, rap, classical, rock, traditional, gospel, you name it. If it’s on the radio, we are going to play it.

The movie Drumline was modeled from Clark Atlanta’s band. Are you a fan of the movie?

Drumline helped me to recruit on a high school level. The energy surrounding the movie helped to revitalize band programs nationwide.

What do you bring to the job of band director?

I hope to bring the nurturing concept. The family concept. I’m the first female in the conference [Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference]. There’s a lot of pressure, but I’m excited about the opportunity. My creativity and organizational skills will set me apart from my counterparts.

Definitely look for great things from us. I want to be an advocate for female band directors nationwide.

Fist fight no more: Ice Cube brings togetherness to Atlanta stroll off The multimedia star wants to inspire students to strive harder toward their goals, no matter what they are

When you think about rapper/actor/entrepreneur Ice Cube, you usually associate him with confrontation – but not on Thursday. On this day, Ice Cube showed up in Atlanta before a packed Bishop Cornelius Henderson Student Center auditorium on Clark Atlanta University’s campus to not only promote his new movie Fist Fight, but to inspire someone to never stop dreaming.

“I think it’s important for success to touch students,” said Cube. “Sometimes just getting a glimpse is all it takes for somebody to spark something in themselves, and hopefully I can be an inspiration in some kind of way.”

Cube attended the Atlanta University Center (AUC) stroll off, and the atmosphere inside the Henderson Student Center was of a tight-knit, fierce competition between rival schools that make up Atlanta’s AUC. Thursday at the Henderson, you saw stroll teams from Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse and Spelman colleges and the Morehouse School of Medicine. Students from all over the AUC gathered and put together stroll teams that usually lent themselves to competition, rivalries, prizes and bragging rights. But this is a new day – a new generation, and now students and the Greek-letter organizations of the AUC have quickly changed that narrative from rivalry to togetherness.

The event’s MC, Headkrack from TV’s Dish Nation, alongside DJ JT, hyped the crowd before the arrival of Ice Cube with fun-filled games, prizes, giveaways and even a freestyle rap battle. And while the fun and games were going on, students and Greeks alike knew the significance of where all of this was taking place.

Phi Beta Sigma brothers perform routine for crowd at stroll off.

Phi Beta Sigma brothers perform routine for crowd at stroll off.

Matt Odom for The Undefeated

“The student center is named after one of our former chaplains here at CAU,” said Mario Boone, the media relations manager at Clark Atlanta University. “Cornelius Henderson was a beloved figure here on the campus, just very well-respected and regarded, and so when we come into the building, we want to honor his name, his legacy and students come in with that in mind, and so there’s an expectation of how to conduct themselves.”

Started in 1929, the AUC was formed as a way for students and Greek-letter organizations to come together and express themselves. But while it’s uncertain when strolling or stepping began to happen, many claim its origins can be traced to the late 20th century, circa 1980s or ’90s.

“It’s actually called an AUC stroll off,” said Clark Atlanta associate director for student involvement and leadership Rae Warner. “I would say it could have been maybe the ’90s or maybe the ’80s when they started actually strolling. Competitionwise, that didn’t start until early 2000s.”

This rhythmic dance or stepping wasn’t just for the Greeks. It was also a residence hall step or stroll show where some teams from the residence halls or houses competed. Some combined groups from multiple colleges competed as well. For instance, the Omega Psi Phi stroll group, the eventual winner Thursday, was composed of both Clark Atlanta and Morehouse students.


Take look at behind the scenes photos of the stroll off


“Greek life is a very important component of most, if not all HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] and certainly that is the case here at Clark Atlanta University,” said Boone. “The stroll off is just one component of that, and it’s an opportunity for the Greek organizations to show off stepping skills and offer a kind of lighthearted moment in the midst of all the work the students have to do on a daily basis – in terms of classes, exams. So having an opportunity to come in and watch a stroll off represents taking a breather, letting your hair down and just being a student on the fun side of things is very important here at Clark Atlanta – and I think pretty much across all HBCUs throughout the country.

“I know that over time it evolved from a step show to a stroll off, which are two different things,” Warner said. “Step shows, of course, are more synchronized steps, a routine put to a theme possibly, and then a stroll off is more so like a dance or dance movements to a song. Where it may have started as a step, it evolved into actually having stroll teams or hot teams or depending on whatever the fraternity/sorority are calling it.”

Once Ice Cube hit the stage, he didn’t disappoint. He presented the winning stroll team a check prize of $1,000. They competed against and defeated the Manley Hall stroll team from Spelman and the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity stroll team from Morehouse.

“That’s really what it’s all about – being an inspiration,” said Ice Cube. “Whether you see Fist Fight or not, that don’t matter. What matters is if you get inspired to do what you want to do – maybe it’s in entertainment, maybe it’s not. But to see me, it’s like, man, I have to go a little harder, or I want what Cube’s got or I want to be that type of artist, whatever kind of inspiration it is that makes you strive harder, that’s what I’m here for.”

The movie featuring Ice Cube, Charlie Day and Tracy Morgan, opened Friday across the country.

Spelman College Freshman Dormitory steppers perform routine for crowd at stroll off.

Spelman College Freshman Dormitory steppers perform routine for crowd at stroll off.

Matt Odom for The Undefeated

“I think it was ironic how full the auditorium was, because I actually grew up on Ice Cube,” said Warner. “Being a bit older than the students, but they were so excited to see him when he came out. Just the excitement of him coming to the campus, and I do believe this is his first time being at Clark Atlanta University. I know since I’ve been here, he hasn’t come. But it was something special to them for him to present a check prize to the stroll off winners and for them to take pictures with him and just to see from him – from the records to the big screen to in-person – he was the same person.”

Although rivalries and the fiery competitiveness temporarily faded, Warner sees growth in the success of stepping and/or strolling, and thinks that it’s good to have a bond among the AUC.

“It varies and depends on how many teams are able to compete,” said Warner. “Whereas it could be fraternities against sororities, or there could be a fraternity winner and then a sorority winner and then there are residence halls that are putting their steppers or stroll teams together and they compete as well. It just depends on how many are competing and what the prize may be, if there’s a prize for two winners opposed to one … I think it’s the variety is what makes this good.”

So by combining halls and residences from schools of the AUC, the stroll off is about togetherness, brotherhood and sisterhood and not a rivalry – no more.