As the narrative of writer/producer Royce Osborn and co-producer Jerry Brock notes at the start of All on a Mardi Gras Day, millions of visitors from around the world come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but those tourists -- and many locals -- are unaware of the rich scope of African-American Carnival traditions. From the grand, irreverent spectacle of the Zulu parade to the small close-knit social aid and pleasure clubs that hit the streets on Fat Tuesday, black Carnival in New Orleans is a spiritual celebration rooted in traditions stretching back over centuries and across continents. And while Mardi Gras is frequently called the biggest party on earth, All on a Mardi Gras Day makes a case for black Carnival as the most riotous and glorious party on earth.
Simply put, this documentary is one of the best New Orleans documentaries ever produced. Don't miss it, and set your VCR to tape All on a Mardi Gras Day because it's a work of art that deserves to be preserved alongside the culture it documents.
It begins with a scholarly tone, detailing the arrival of African slaves in New Orleans and the importance of their Sunday rituals in Congo Square. The culture of Native Americans, and their contributions and bond to African Americans, is brought to life in similar fashion. Eloquent interviewees such as Charles Siler of the Louisiana State Museum and the Rev. Goat Carson provide succinct details and background, setting the stage for the development of African-American Carnival traditions that carry on today.
The imagery in All on a Mardi Gras Day is spectacular. It captures the visual glory of African-American Carnival in all its shades: the sunset oranges, icy blues and brilliant yellow feathers of Mardi Gras Indian plumage, the stark black and white costumes of the Skull and Bone gangs (and the occasional still-bloody red bones carried by its members), and the multicolor pulsing swirl of humanity that accompanies second lines.
Rare photos, footage and audio clips -- some never before seen and heard -- complement the contemporary segments. It's thrilling to hear the voices of Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong talk about their own Mardi Gras experiences, and to see past Mardi Gras celebrations on Claiborne Avenue before the I-10 overpass muted one of the city's most vibrant centers for Mardi Gras celebration.
With co-producer Brock (also the co-founder of WWOZ 90.7 FM) involved, it's no surprise that the music featured is all top-shelf. The songs in the documentary don't function as background; they're shown to be an integral part of the culture, through a number of timeless Carnival songs including Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras," the Wild Magnolias' "Handa Wanda," Earl King's "Street Parade," the Meters' "Hey Pocky A-Way," and the traditional "Indian Red."
Just including such legendary compositions is commendable, but the defining characteristic of All on a Mardi Gras Day is its commitment to education and context. The value of hearing interview subjects like Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, Donald Harrison Jr., "Uncle" Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band, and Big Chief Tootie Montana expound on the magic of indigenous Mardi Gras music traditions is enormous. And All on a Mardi Gras Day takes that educational opportunity even further, as Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes vividly illustrates the role and history of clave and bamboula rhythms in the music, tracing it to their Brazilian and African roots.
Such historical perspectives and context runs throughout the film, illuminating a variety of subjects: Zulu coconuts, the hierarchy of Mardi Gras Indian gangs, the previously violent history of Indian rivalries, the glorious sexuality of the Baby Dolls marchers, cross-dressing traditions during Mardi Gras, and the dedication and financial commitment involved in sewing Indian suits.
Nineteenth-century American philosopher George Santayana once said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It's a shame Santayana never got to experience African-American Carnival in New Orleans, because he'd probably have a much different outlook on life. All on a Mardi Gras Day remembers the past vividly, and shows that repeating African-American Carnival traditions every year is hardly cause for condemnation -- it's cause for celebration.