Currently touring the film festival/screening series circuit is a feature documentary titled We Won’t Bow Down. No, it’s not in response to the popular Beyonce track – far from it.
The film, shot entirely in New Orleans over an 8-year period (after Hurricane Katrina) by first time director Christopher Levoy Bower, explores the rarely-documented Mardi Gras Indian community – what the filmmaker calls a secret society of African Americans in inner city New Orleans, who devote their time and skills to create hand-beaded Indian costumes that embody a cultural, spiritual and ancient power that has kept Africa alive in the new world despite slavery and it’s legacy.
“The first Indian I ever saw was Victor Harris of the Spirit of Fi-Yi-Yi, and he was singing a prayer called ‘calling all my people,’ and he was calling all his people home,” Bower said in an interview with Louisiana’s OffBeat magazine. “It just literally gave me chills. You could feel the spirit in the air. There must have been 50 people surrounding him, chanting. It’s just something I couldn’t let go.”
The history of the Mardi Gras Indian dates back to the 18th century, when African slaves escaped into the swamps surrounding New Orleans and assimilated into tribes like the Choctaw, Seminole and Chickasaw. Liberated Africans and Native Americans were bound together by resistance to slavery, exploitation and oppression; and found their customs, music and dance to be very similar. After abolition, African Americans began to express their history and culture by “Masking as Indians” during Mardi Gras celebrations. Wearing elaborate headdress and intricately beaded suits, each tribe makes a ceremonial procession through their neighborhood in full regalia to share this tradition with their community and to meet rival tribes in symbolic battle; with traditional music, chants and dance. Each year tribe members hand-sew a new suit to honor their ancestors and to express a culture that is ancient, mystical and vibrantly alive.
It is essentially a cinéma vérité documentary (without any narration, and no talking head “outside experts” to explain anything). As director Bower states: “It was very important for me to let the Indians tell their history. It’s definitely not the most intellectual approach to it, but I felt like it really resonated with the history of the culture. It’s a living culture, and that is so important because it’s always moving. A lot of the work that has been done about Indians has been done about past generations, and I want to capture that but also have this new generation that’s forming the new traditions.”
We Won’t Bow Down made its world premier at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles in January of this year, and continues to travel.
Also actor Wendell Pierce who attended the PAFF screening, brought the film to New Orleans last month, where it premiered at the National WWII Museum.
It’s currently in play at the Marche du Film Doc Corner at the Cannes Film Festival.
Stay up-to-date on the film’s journey via its Facebook page HERE.
Watch a trailer for the film below.