Until recently meeting Monica Cooper, President and CEO of Make It Happen Entertainment in Cannes, I had never heard of Mardi Gras Indians – African-Americans who dress up as Indians during Mardi Gras. In fact, having gotten used to many African-Americans’ claims of some amount of Native American ancestry, I often observed that such claim tended not to go much beyond explaining “good” and/or long hair, supposedly non-African phenotype features, or a skin complexion which, if you squint sideways, has a seemingly exotic hue.
However, after watching the documentary film "We Won’t Bow Down," directed by Christopher Levoy Bower, and co-executive produced by Cooper, simply describing Mardi Gras Indians as carnival revellers dressed as Indians, seems rather lame and akin to comparing them to white people wearing afro wigs or faux dreadlocked hats for Halloween – i.e. it does them a great disservice.
"We Won’t Bow Down," which participated in the Marche du Film Doc Corner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “sheds light on a culture of artists, tribesmen, and warriors, as they maintain the spirit and tradition of their ancient ancestors in modern-day New Orleans.”
Whilst, sartorially and culturally, these ancient ancestors include Native Americans, great homage is also paid to Africans who made (wholly or in part) the middle passage – some of whom took refuge from slavery among their also subjugated Indian brothers. Indeed, it’s unclear whether any of the film’s cast actually have any Indian blood at all (according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his book, "In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past," only 5% of African-Americans actually have at least 12.5% Native American ancestry), but the extent of Native American blood becomes less relevant as the film progresses and the evolution of a culture is explored.
As is mentioned a few times in the film, being a Mardi Gras Indian is not just about putting on a suit. A great deal of creativity and year-long dedication goes into making the costumes. A hierarchy and structure exists in which tribe members have positions and can rise through the ranks. Tribe loyalty is paramount and rivalry is fierce yet respectful (thankfully, a period of actual physical violence has given way to more ceremonial grandstanding). While a prominent female role does exist, this is a male dominated culture which gives its adherents a much needed sense of purpose and place.
The scenarios depicted on the heavily-beaded patches sewn onto elaborate hand-made costumes range from pow-wows, to pyramids, to images of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, to scenes of urban victims of police brutality in America. Essentially, this is a culture born out of the necessity for a disenfranchised, marginalised, and often neglected people to find dignity through a fervent mixture of history, imagination, determination and self-expression.
Initially, I had misgivings about the filmmakers’ choice not to use a narrator to guide us through this new and initially confusing foray into uncharted territory (for me, anyway). Are they African-American? Are they Indian? Are they African-Americans pretending to be Indians? However, once the initial confusion abates, letting the film’s characters share insightful glimpses into a secret culture of spiritual transformation, life-long dedication, loyalty, and fierce pride, was perhaps the more intimate and personable route to take, allowing an audience to feel as though it were being let in behind the scenes of something new and unexpected, rather than being taken down the tourist-friendly route.
"We Won’t Bow Down" continues on the festival circuit, with its next appearance being at Downtown Film Festival Los Angeles, from July 9th-19th.
For more information on the film and to follow its progress, you can visit the film’s website http://www.wewontbowdown.com/.