Did you know that New Orleans area slaves, back in the day, were given Sundays off? And that they spent their day off having fun in Congo Square with Native Americans? No jive, this is the truth.
When Mardi Gras Indians first went about during Carnival season, they would literally go to war with decorated shotguns and other weaponry. For real! The history of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians is just as colorful as the beads that adorn their costumes. There may be some further questions that people will have as to how it all came to fruition, but all anyone needs to know is told by the Indians themselves in We Won’t Bow Down.
The documentary is a 90-minute visual encyclopedia article, going from one factoid to the next. Why do they wear what they wear? How does one become a Big Chief? What other roles are there in a gang? Why are they called gangs? Each question and more are answered fully, and with much satisfaction scene after scene.
Seeing a documentary that is as concise and, almost as importantly, well-paced and fluid, is a breath of fresh air. Still, it might be concise to a fault. While it moves and transitions well, the heavy dose of constant (and sometimes redundant) information causes the film to stall on occasion. I often cite the hybrid documentary / narrative 12 O’Clock Boys as a good example of a film that moves along creatively without repeating itself every other scene. When you find yourself wanting to fast forward a bit because you feel you’ve received all the movie has to offer, that’s a problem.
The colorful costumes and personalities of the tribes on display are brought to extra life with some wonderful cinematography. In one scene, an Indian is framed with a VHS copy of The Mack behind him, as he talks about cultural strength. In another, an Indian is framed in front of a Hurricane Katrina house tag, while discussing the past and present. There are many a clever technique used to deepen our understanding of the Mardi Gras Indians that we are privileged to be watching on screen.
For the longest time, Mardi Gras Indian culture had a shield of mystique surrounding it; you had to be part of it to know about it. But, as said in We Won’t Bow Down, now is the time to explain and educate on a larger scale. The Big Chief’s have always been watchers, almost like Father’s, to the community. Through their words and spirit, they remain ever vigilant, even coming alive on the screen — almost as much as they are off the screen. It’s not just a seasonal job — it’s year round.
Bead patches that tell stories. Wars with words and suits. Dancing and music. It’s a culture most beautiful, in a movie that culture most deserves. All in their own words, all in their own suits. Such passion needs to be felt.
3.5 / 5 *s
For more on We Won’t Bow Down, visit wewontbowdown.com.
Originally published at digbr.com on February 20, 2015.