“City of a Million Dreams,” a 2021 indie documentary covering the history of second line jazz funerals in New Orleans, will screen this week in Los Angeles, the latest in a string of engagements this year as the crew seeks a distributor.
The 90-minute flick takes viewers on an adventure in the “northernmost Caribbean city” that exudes history and revelry all at once, while also tying the city’s Black cultural and religious heritage to a personal tragedy that hit home for the filmmakers.
Deborah “Big Red” Cotton, a well-known music journalist who died in 2017 from complications of a gunshot wound suffered while attending a parade, helped produce the documentary and is a major contributing voice therein.
She was among those honored during an outdoor screening of the film on Sunday in Topanga, California, where director Jason Berry was joined by his daughter and co-producer Simonette Berry, editor Tim Watson, narrator/composer Dr. Michael White of Xavier University of Louisiana, and creative director Monique Moss.
The movie is based on Berry’s 2018 book of the same name, which marked New Orleans’ tricentennial and covered its history more generally. A native of the city, Berry’s professional interest in the second line tradition is longstanding.
“I started filming funerals in the late 90s,” Berry said after the showing, which opened the 12th Annual I've Known Rivers Film Festival (headed by NOLA native Torrence Brannon-Reese) and took place at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.
“I think what we have captured in this film, through the story of Deb and the story of Michael, is the coming together of the ring and the line, the circle of African memory and the linear progression of the brass band tradition, stretching back to Europe. I think, in a sense, that metaphor gives definition to the social mosaic of America and, indeed, New Orleans.”
A second screening of the film, also part of the festival, will take place on Tuesday, December 5, at the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at the University of Southern California. The show will begin at 7pm PT, followed by a Q&A with both Berrys, Moss, the film’s co-producer Doug Blush, and cinematographer Harris Done.
The crew has been actively shopping the film since 2021, when its release was hampered to some degree by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was not the first hangup for the film, whose production process stretched back some two decades and was at one point nearly derailed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“I had Ford Foundation support for a while. We thought we had the story the way we wanted it, the treatment. Then Katrina hit,” he said.
“Dr. White lost his home. The whole production went into upheaval. It took me quite a while to regroup.”
That he did, and the film eventually became a tale not of purely historical review but of present struggle and the familiar New Orleans will to survive—always with a healthy dose of faith (much of it Black and Catholic), and music (much of it Black and Christian).
“I had musical ancestors that went back to the beginning of jazz. I found something very special in this music and tradition, which is the core of New Orleans culture,” White told viewers after Sunday’s screening.
“It’s great to have the world now be able to share some aspects of that tradition through this great film.”
Speaking to enthusiasts at the showing just a short drive from the heart of Hollywood, Berry said the search for a buyer continues for “City of a Million Dreams,” which could be ripe for big-name streaming services.
Those interested in the Tuesday night screening at USC can RSVP on the School of Cinematic Arts website.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.