Marching into history: Hillside Marching Hornets subject of documentary

Nov. 30, 2013 @ 08:59 PM

Knees up, elbows out, members of the drumline swaying with swagger, the documentary opens with the Hillside High School marching band in a parade.

The drum majors are out front, whistles between their lips. The dancers step in unison, faces frozen in a big smile. Everyone grips their instruments, clarinets to tubas, in fierce concentration.

The documentary, which premiered Saturday at Full Frame Theater in the American Tobacco Campus, was nine years in the making. Titled “One Band Indivisible,” it follows the historically African-American Durham high school band through grueling practices, stressful competitions and student musician achievements.

“We’ll take ‘em,” said former Hillside band director Xavier Cason in the film. He was talking about tryouts, about accepting students with little experience into the marching band. “But they gotta show a lot of heart, dedication and discipline.”

The film switches from parade to practice field, where students are lined up in the unrelenting summer sun, towels protecting their necks from sunburn, with their instruments.

“A lot of you come from middle school programs, where you practice all the time,” Cason said, pacing past the sweating musicians. “You can’t stop now.”

Britany Burch was in the audience Saturday, and she said it’s a shock to see herself as a teenager on screen. She’s 24 now, the youth programs director at the Carrboro Arts Center and mother to a 4-year-old son. But in 2006 and 2007, she was a band member.

In the documentary, she stood outside of her house, looking at her reflection in the window, twirling a purple flag and practicing the spins.

“You’re part of a legacy,” Burch said about being part of the historic Hornets. “Keep it up. Don’t screw it up.”

Mike Watson, now a teaching assistant looking to start a community drumline, was appointed a Hillside drum major in the film, in which he helped lead the band during practices and performances.

He said music was his wind — it would sweep up his problems and carry them away. Nothing was better than rounding the corner into the football stadium, playing and hearing everyone scream your name.

“We are one band, indivisible, with a passion for perfection,” Watson barked, the entire band reciting the mantra along with him during a practice.

Band fees back in 2006 were $200 a year for students — the money went toward uniforms and instrument repair, but a lot of band families couldn’t pay that fee. The money the school gets from Durham Public Schools doesn’t cover the imperative costs of the band, so much of the money the school uses for repairs, uniforms and financial aid for families comes from donations via car washes, food sales, fruit fundraisers.

The parents during the documentary were shown loading boxes of fruit into a truck, giving the teens bottled water during games and adjusting their uniforms.

“You knew that the parents were behind you, but you didn’t know exactly what they were doing for you,” Burch said.

The conflict comes at the end of the film — Hillside is competing in the annual Battle of the Bands, in which high schools face off to be named top marching band in the area. At that point, Hillside had never lost best in show. Their show-style form turned heads, and it was just as much about exhibiting confidence as it was about perfecting the music.

“Who’s house is this?” Cason asked, right before they took to the N.C. Central University field to defend their title. “Whose town is this?”

“Our house. Our town,” they responded.

Westover High from Fayetteville ended up taking the crown; Hillside needed to exhibit more energy to balance out their sound. But they’d go on to win the competition the following year.

Rhonda Klevansky, a filmmaker from Durban, South Africa, said she saw Hillside’s Marching Hornets perform nine years ago in a Christmas parade and thought they were incredible.

“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the band,” Klevansky said about the entirety of the project. “That’s the joy of being a filmmaker.”

To learn more about the documentary, visit