Following the lives, passions and music of three Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs must have begun as an effort to add to the world’s understanding of both America’s indigenous people and survivors of black slavery. Who would know when the footage began to be shot in 2005 (10 days before that year’s famed celebration) that Hurricane Katrina would become the most unwelcome guest just months later (“[lack of infrastructure maintenance] gave that storm the keys to the city,” said Big Chief Alfred Doucette while awaiting the all clear to return home from Arkansas and pick up the pieces).
Because of that horrific event, director/writer Aaron Walker was suddenly pushed off his roughed-out script but still managed to cobble the many disparate parts into a largely cohesive whole.
Not unexpectedly, music plays a most important part while the camera captures the painstaking preparations of the tribe leaders who truly understand the amount of patience and diligence required as they “Sew, Sew, Sew” their plumage-rich suits and crowns.
Beyond the many “traditional” songs that are aurally handed down from one generation to the next, the tracks are a mini-musical history on their own. Pianist George Winston works his keyboard magic (notably “I-10”—the interstate highway that put the once proud Claiborne Street under its ugly wing in 1966, yet the traditionalists always include that covered bit of history in their route, until the City made it a car cemetery after the waters receded) with customary touch and style; Lewis Allen’s “Strange Fruit” (performed with grit by Jimmy Scott) is the musical equivalent to a beaded garment that depicts how the Ku Klux Klan hung black men in trees; pre- and post-funeral songs for chief of chiefs, Tootie Montana (whose collapse into death was unwittingly captured: following police brutality during the 2005 St. Joseph’s parade, Montana and his followers jammed City Hall to demand changes from Mayor C. Roy Nagin only to take his last gasp demanding justice), were marvellously rendered by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band “: Just a Closer Walk With Thee” said it all.
It’s encouraging to hear from Big Chief Victor Morris that the old ways (packing a gun during the Mardi Gras parade was not uncommon, fuelling revenge deaths at the height of the fun) that the goal in more recent times is to sport “the prettiest suit.” With outfits that would be the envy of drag queens and their admirers, it’s abundantly apparent that pride and dignity are at the root of both uptown and downtown tribes today. Happily, wide-eyed youth are learning how to sew, sing, dance and shake a tambourine. One can only hope that revellers and partiers will return in droves and keep young and old alike having the time of their lives rather than falling into the deadly trap of “sorry for yourself” misery.
The “Where are they now five years later?” segment was a balanced blend of hope and resignation. JWR