Star of HBO’s “The Wire” and “Treme” hosts gala screening of “We Won’t Bow Down.”
Eight years ago, filmmaker Christopher Levoy Bower made a promise. He would make a movie about Mardi Gras Indians, but it wouldn’t be like other films on the topic. He wouldn’t focus on the “celebrity” chiefs, the same names and faces that always seem to crop up in such documentaries.
Rather, he would shine a spotlight on the anonymous majority, the dozens and dozens of less-prominent but no less passionate masker-musicians that keep the distinctly New Orleans tradition alive. In the process, he would provide them a platform to explain in their own words why their tradition — a labor of love that occupies all of their free time — is so important to them and to their city.
“They sort of challenged me to do a real street-level, verbal history version of a documentary on the Mardi Gras Indians,” Bower said, “one that would incorporate everyday Indians, not just famous Indians.”
The result is the feature-length film “We Won’t Bow Down,” which makes its New Orleans premiere Saturday night (April 12) with a 7:15 p.m. red-carpet event at The National World War II Museum’s Solomon Victory Theater. Tickets to that event, as well as to a second, general screening at 9:15 p.m., cost $40 and are available online through the ShowClix.com website and in person at the offices of Make It Happen Entertainment, 3361 Gen. De Gaulle Drive, Ste. 201.
As it turns out, the Victory Theater is an entirely fitting venue for Bower’s film, as he was undeniably victorious in meeting that promise he made eight years ago.
Yes, “We Won’t Bow Down” touches on the importance of such figures as Bo Dollis and Tootie Montana to the Indian tradition. It would be incomplete if it didn’t. But its main focus is squarely on the rank-and-file, those community-taught craftsman who toil all year long on their elaborately beaded-and-feathered suits, not out of a desire for celebrity status but because they revere the Mardi Gras Indian culture.
And no, “revere” isn’t an overstatement. Throughout Bower’s film, words like “spiritual” crop up over and over. “It’s a religion,” says Big Chief Lil’ Walter Cook of the Creole Wild West (he of the wonderfully contradictory title/name).
There’s really no other way to describe the unflagging dedication that this collection of strong, burly men have to picking up needle and thread and sewing, sewing, sewing the stunningly intricate suits they craft year after year. Their end goal might be to head out on Mardi Gras morning and Super Sunday to peacock and engage in boisterous ritualized battle, but Bower’s film makes it clear that what they want as much as anything — in addition to keeping the culture alive — is to earn the adjective most coveted by Mardi Gras Indians: “pretty.”
“It’s definitely spiritual,” Bower said. “That’s a basic question I would ask every Indian, and every one of them would say, ‘Absolutely.’ There’s a spiritual element to this culture that can’t be denied. … That spirit is a main part of it. Some people are born into it and some are called. It is like a priesthood.”
For those unfamiliar with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, “We Won’t Bow Down” serves as a nice primer on the structure of a typical Indian gang. Over the course of his film, Bower’s subjects dutifully explain — sometimes in salty terms — the history of the tradition and how it is intended as a celebration of the long-ago kinship shared by former slaves and Native Americans. They also describe the basic choreography of the “battles” that play out when two Indian gangs meet on the streets on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Day and Super Sunday.
But much of that ground has been covered by other films before, and so the most fascinating elements in Bower’s film are easily the men and women he interviews, the otherwise ordinary New Orleanians — the guy in line behind you at the sno-ball stand, the woman next to you on the streetcar — who quietly choose to dedicate their lives to two things: sewing a new suit every year, and their big chief.
And that, Bowers said, is only fitting. “There are people who have been doing this every year who are the prettiest in their neighborhood but they never get any attention because they don’t have a stage show or anything like that,” he said.
Granted, gaining entry into the Mardi Gras Indian community was no small task for a North Carolina filmmaker like Bower. As it would turn out, his biggest obstacle in making the film — rounding up the finances — would also end up being an unintentional asset.
“I was just having to paint houses and do odd jobs to try to scrape together the money to do this,” he said when asked why it took eight years to make the film. “But I’m glad. Some of it was intentional: I really didn’t do a lot of shooting the first couple of years that we started this, because I wanted to take that time to sit and learn about the culture. I thought, I just can’t make a movie about something I don’t know about.”
Although Saturday’s screening will mark the local premiere of “We Won’t Bow Down,” it has already played twice at the Pan-African Film Festival in Los Angeles. To hear producer Monica R. Cooper describe it, those screenings were unqualified hits. Those West Coast audiences might not have been familiar with the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, but once they saw it, they “got” it, she said.
In fact, just as popular as the film was the fact that some of the Indians featured in it were invited to Los Angeles to show off their suits. “They were getting (people) following them around,” Cooper said. “It was just a shock to them. Everybody just stood in their tracks going, ‘Whoa.’ It’s just beautiful. It’s regal.”
Meanwhile, as Cooper’s Make It Happen Entertainment is working on ways to get Bower’s film in front of as many people as possible, Saturday’s red-carpet event at the WWII Museum promises to be just as colorful. Not only that, but it will be screening for a good cause.
Local actor Wendell Pierce — described by Cooper as a champion of the film — is hosting the event, and the proceeds will go to the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, a passion project of Pierce’s.
For his part, Bower said he isn’t necessarily nervous about the screening. His film has already been passed around a fair bit among the Mardi Gras Indian community, and he says its been met with universal approval. That it is finally playing in the city where it all started, however — and that it will giving back to that city in the process — is entirely gratifying, he said.
“The fact that we can do this and raise money for New Orleans is what really topped it all off for me,” he said. “I’ve been living in New Orleans off and on while we were filming. The city has such a big place in my heart and really has changed me so much, and given us so much, that we just want to be able to give back. To be able to do that is exciting and fulfilling.”