To be perfectly honest, I had never even heard of the Mardi Gras Indians until I saw We Won’t Bow Down, and while I can’t say the culture — or sub-culture, I guess — really resonates with me, I’m certainly glad to have been introduced to it. For others uninitiated, the Mardi Gras Indians are a group of African Americans in New Orleans who — as members of various tribes — dress up in ever-more outrageous outfits meant to represent and honor the Native Americans who would take in escaped slaves. There’s much more to it than that — a lot of it shrouded in secrecy — but those are the essentials. The film traces the history of this, but only through what the various Mardi Gras Indians seen in it choose to tell us. Several times references are made to the symbolism and meaning behind aspects of the culture, but little of if is explained,which I suspect is deliberate.
What Bower has created here is a broad picture of the groups — giving the viewer a sense of the culture minus pedantic discourse. Bower explains his approach this way: “The voices I wanted to capture were not just the well know Indians, which there are many in the film, but also the rank and file members that are less know or behind the scenes, but are regarded as the ‘Prettiest’ in their neighborhood. We Won’t Bow Down doesn’t follow just one Indian or just one tribe. I wanted to expose the expansiveness of the culture and give the audience a glimpse into a profound, historically relevant and spiritually powerful world.” For the most part, I think he succeeds in this. His film certainly offers us a significant cross-section of tribes. Yes, as I indicated at the beginning, the film has a tendency to go on too long — a common issue with documentaries. But the rich culture — and the gloriously elaborate costumes — make it worthwhile.
The Fine Arts Theatre is showing We Won’t Bow Down for one show on Thursday, June 4, at 7 p.m., and one show on Friday, June 5, at 1 p.m.