Dir. John Whitehead, USA, 2018, 83 min.
On stage in front of an adoring crowd, Rhiannon Giddens gave Dom Flemons a framed photograph of the two of them with their former bandmate, Justin Robinson, and Joe Thompson, a folk musician from Mebane. The photograph was taken just before the trio formally considered themselves a proper string band. Before he saw the gift, Flemons had his legs crossed and his head tilted down towards the floor. This performance would be his last with the Chocolate Drops. Once he saw the photograph, once he remembered where it all started, he leaned back in his chair and laughed. His apprehension subsided and the group went on to give a rousing performance.
Giddens, a Greensboro native, smiled to herself. The journey of the Chocolate Drops hasn’t been easy on her. She started with the Greensboro Youth Chorus while still in elementary school. In high school she joined a pow-wow drum circle to explore her Occaneechi ancestry. She studied classical voice at Oberlin College and Conservatory, and after graduating moved on to Celtic music.
In a July 2017 interview with the San Francisco Classical Voice, Giddens said “I was given a voice, and as long as I follow that, everything feels right. I spend enough time in each [genre] to really get a thorough grounding in it, ’cause I don’t really believe in dabbling.”
Though the film explores some very personal areas of the trio’s life, it also takes the time to highlight the broad history of American folk music.
“The fact that the banjo was only played by Africans for the first hundred years is something huge.” said Justin Robinson. “It kind of changes your whole view on race relations, how things were in the American South, migration patterns — it has a lot more implications other than that it just ‘came from Africa.’”
The fiddle, an instrument that’s long been associated with white, rural artists, was considered to be a black instrument before the beginning of the Civil War. It’s like lesson in American music history.
In many ways, this film succeeds in relaying both regional string-band music as well as the interpersonal history of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. The documentarians don’t pull any punches, either. From the quarrels between Giddens and Flemons, who dated for some time, to the creative differences the plagued the Chocolate Drops, this documentary presents a drama that’s not always present in this type of film.
The film ends with a bittersweet tone. Both Giddens and Flemons have successful, solo careers and Robinson now works in forestry after getting a master’s degree from NC State University. No matter how impactful a group of a creative minds can be, sometimes these collectives aren’t meant to last. And that’s alright.
Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind screens in Winston-Salem on April 10 at 8 p.m. at SECCA and in Greensboro on April 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Red Cinema.
You may also enjoy these Riverrun 2019 reviews:
No Country For Old Men: Winston-Salem journalist and musician Eddie Garcia produces an original score for this Coen Brothers film.
Life is Fare: This freeform film follows the story of an Eritrean woman making a film in San Francisco and explores themes of identity, mental health and reality.
Find the full list of reviews here.