Coming-of-age stories are a complex genre, and when you throw in a complex protagonist, they can be pretty great. Most coming-of-age stories surrounding Black characters, however, are rooted in trauma and pain, but part of what makes Drumline a classic is that it is just a story, something that could possibly happen to anyone, and the main character (as well as the entire supporting cast) just happen to be Black. As a result, we can truly enjoy the film, as ordinary as it would otherwise be, as simply entertaining, and nothing more or less.
Drumline is the story of Devon Miles (Nick Cannon), a New York City native and Atlanta A&T University freshman who’s gotten a full ride scholarship based on the fact that he is an exemplary drummer and will be part of the school’s marching band. It seems like thinks are coming together perfectly for Devon: He’s at an excellent (albeit fictional) HBCU, he’s got a potential girlfriend, and the band director, Dr, James Lee (Orlando Jones) personally invited him to join the band. But the best stories are created when the worst possible thing that could happen to the protagonist does. And that thing comes in the form of Sean (Leonard Roberts), the percussion leader whose keen observation skills expose the fact that, however talented he is, Devon cannot read music and had been playing by ear (and eyes) the entire time. Suddenly, Devon’s ego is seriously deflated when this reveal causes him to be demoted in the band, and then this anger manifests when he is goaded into a televised fight during homecoming, witnessed in person by the entire school, as well as his girlfriend Laila’s (Zoe Saldana) parents.
At his lowest moments, Devon is forced to get his priorities in check and work on his humility. When he acknowledges that he needs help, and that he needs his band members to get where he needs to go, Devon is able to replace false bravado with calm discipline and skill. Drumline is interesting, entertaining, and deliciously melanated, all without the stress and drama of Black trauma porn. I give this one 4.25 stars.