After a critically acclaimed film festival run and impressive critical notices from publications like Film Threat and The Daily Beast, New Orleans’ filmmaker Jason Berry’s celebratory documentary, City of a Million Dreams, a love letter to the history of New Orleans, will receive a long-awaited commercial release in the city beginning Friday, June 17, at The Broad Theater.
Equal parts joyous and mournful, City of a Million Dreams takes a deep look at New Orleans history through the documentation jazz funerals and second line parades. Berry imbues the documentary with well-researched history and pulsating, often hypnotic footage of funerals and parades. The documentary itself is an extension of Berry’s acclaimed book of the same name, published in 2018.
Through vintage photos and archival footage, historical re-creations, and filming of modern-day jazz funerals, the documentary traces the evolution of the tradition—and the city—from the late 18th century to today, from the African rhythms and ring dances of Congo Square to the introduction of European marching bands, Sicilian brass bands and early 20th-century jazz musicians.
Famous the world over, jazz funerals have origins shrouded in mystery. Filmed over twenty-two years, City of a Million Dreams explores race relations at a pivotal time in the U.S. Burial traditions train a lens on the unique and resilient culture of New Orleans.
Deb Cotton, an African American journalist, leaves “hard-hearted Hollywood” for New Orleans, and becomes a chronicler of the parading clubs spawned by 19th-century burial societies. Her zeal for the city grows as she becomes a blogger for Gambit Weekly, adopting the handle “Big Red Cotton.” As Deb explores her adopted culture, Dr. Michael White, a prolific clarinetist and New Orleans native, plays “the widow’s wail” on his clarinet, a cry of lamentation in funeral marches. White’s transcendent music also includes joyous peals for the soul’s cutting-loose, which happens when the band leaves a cemetery, followed by dancers in what New Orleanians call the second line. Risen in the ranks of brass bands, White, too, is on a journey of self-discovery, seeking clues about his ancestor who played at the dawn of jazz. White says of jazz funerals: “For someone dealing with American racism and trying to figure out your place in this life…you can be transformed into another world that really sets you free.”
Funerals unfold as caravans of memory, shaping White’s quest and Cotton’s epiphanies. New Orleans burial customs evolve as people of different tongues and colors reach the city, surviving floods, fires, war, political violence, civil rights struggles, and hurricanes. The film follows the evolution of the French colonial settlement with a stunning recreation of African burial choreographies by enslaved people, honoring ancestral memory on a field called Congo Square. The resistance drama of danced memory carries across time, gathering force as as black men march as Mardi Gras Indians in one the film’s most powerful funeral sequences. As African dances merge with the funeral processions of European marching bands, the fusion of the ring and the line gives shape to jazz music, and an archetype of the city’s diverse society.
When the documentary hits a violent turning point at a parade shooting, Deb Cotton and Michael White are plunged into a search for the city’s soul.
“We’re delighted that City of a Million Dreams will be shown at the Broad Theater in New Orleans, an anchor of the city’s film culture,” said Berry