The first night Roger Bobb settled into his Bobbcat Films surroundings, a calm sense of pride descended on his soul like a sunset, and with his celebrated idol, Sidney Poitier, standing sentry over his shoulder, the producer-director slipped into a slumber inside his “Thinking Room.”
Bobb would need that rest, cocooned within the artistic energy spilling off his wall of fame of classic films.It was the literal and symbolic calm before the creative storm that funneled through his body and materialized with the ESPN five-part special on the HBCU bands titled “The Battle.” This is like Drumline on steroids because it pops with a behind-the-scenes reality twist that’ll take mainstream viewers by surprise. Like trumpeters and flutist doing push-ups as punishment for mistakes? Practices at three in the morning? Beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I endured my own flashbacks to those brutal football summer camps.
And that’s precisely the point. That’s the special energy and uniqueness of black college life that Bobb synchronized his film crew and camera lens to capture: The fact that, at HBCUs, sometimes — OK, OK, oftentimes — the football game is the opening act for the “5th quarter,” the electric halftime show where the adversarial bands size each other up like opposing forces before lighting up the stadium with their carefully-coordinated theatrics. It’s sort of like having a fireworks display before the game ends.
“This is real. This is unscripted, this is just us taking the camera and saying, ‘go!’ and you guys do your thing and we’ll capture it,” Bobb says as Bobbcat Films chronicles the Grambling State University marching band and the SWAC conference, and all the exciting, elating and anxious moments that transpire over the course of a season.
“We show what life is like going to an HBCU and, two, what life is really like in an HBCU marching band: the blood sweat and tears and dedication that it takes — some of them are on scholarships and some are not — but they all still have to perform,” Bobb adds, crediting his producing partner Shante Paige, a Howard grad, and ESPN senior vice president Keith Clinkscales, an alum of FAMU, for helping this project come to fruition and begins on ESPN on Nov. 10.
“Here’s the thing. There’s something at Grambling called ‘shaking the tree.’ That’s when a band member says ‘I’m better than you.’ and you literally have to outplay that person. And that happens every week. You think you’re safe, but you always have to be on top of your game because there’s someone always trying to battle you,” Bobb continues. “So you have a battle to stay on the field and to be able to be in the band on a weekly basis —on a daily basis, really — and you have a battle when you play the games on Saturdays, you have to make sure that your band is better than that other band. And then it culminates in the seasonal battle with the Bayou Classic, which is like huge for the alumni, the students and the fans and Grambling has got to outplay Southern’s band and Southern’s band has to outplay the Grambling band. There is the game and then there is the battle and that’s what we’re trying to chronicle.”
Bobb saying that he’s not nervous about being on his own after seven years. He’s prepared for this moment ever since he was reciting movie lines with his brother as kids in New York. “I feel great. I’m very excited. This is my company’s first production, the first of many. I want to have a diverse field of programming.”
That diversity is to include reality shows [we’ll talk about that soon] and new movie projects in the works, but for now he’s has to finish shooting “The Battle” at the next Grambling game and won’t complete it until after the Bayou Classic the week leading up to Thanksgiving.
What also excites Bobb is having another African American-owned movie house in the city of Atlanta — which, of course, includes Tyler Perry Studio and Rainforest Films — which will provide another powerful portal to showcase the broad range of urban experiences and talents, and …
And … oh … excuse me, Roger … hold on just a second … All of you scavengers, bottom feeders and scandal seekers can come out from under the table. Nothing foul fell from the lips of Bobb about Tyler Perry and soaked into the carpet for you to vacuum up and rummage through. If anything, the only thing that registered on Bobb’s intelligent countenance when asked about his tenure at TPS was awe: awe of Perry, awe of what his former boss accomplished, built and imparted into Bobb in seven years. Bobbcat is simply the manifestation of a childhood dream that was going to happen at some point.
So when the director-producer was asked how he could possibly manage to fire up the practical and creative sides at the same time without his brains turning to jelly, Bobb said: “I basically had Tyler Perry boot camp. It was a great opportunity for me to learn from the best. And basically how to multitask. We shot so many things simultaneously and had so much quantity coming out: “House of Payne,” 220 episodes; “Meet the Browns,” 140 episodes; 11 movies and other things within a span of six years,” he enumerates. “That was my film school after film school. It was Tyler Perry Studios that prepared me for what I’m doing now. It is absolutely more taxing because you’re doing both. But that’s what he does. You learn room the best. And if you see someone doing something, you’d be a fool not to learn from it.”
Bobb is also interested in creating an ambiance conducive to unearthing new talent. Which is why Bobb actively supported actress Terri J. Vaughn (“Steve Harvey Show,” “Meet the Browns”) when she set up the Green Room coffee house for actor in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. And with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed creating a fruitful tax environment for moviemaking — Bobb counted seven black shows on TV, all based in the ATL — the black filmmaking community can only continue to blossom. –terry shropshire