By Jennifer Merin
JM: I’ve visited New Orleans often, but never discovered the Mardi Gras Indians tradition shown in Tootie‘s Last Suit -- tribes of African-American men and women dressing as Native Americans in elaborate feather and jewel costumes they’ve constructed, parading through the streets, challenging each other to determine who‘s ‘prettiest.’ It’s fascinating. How were you introduced to it?
LK: Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my first knowledge of Mardi Gras Indians was years ago, when I heard Wild Tchoupitoulas, the first album where the Neville Brothers performed as a family. The Neville Brothers came from Mardi Gras Indians culture -- their uncle was a famous Mardi Gras Indian chief named Chief Jolly. Wild Tchoupitoulas was the name of his tribe. That album, released in the early '70s, was hugely popular. My first awareness of the Mardi Gras Indians came through it, but I didn’t know what it was about until the early 90s, when visited New Orleans and met Michael P. Smith, a photographer who’d been documenting Mardi Gras Indians for years.
I was knocked out by his photographs -- the beauty and the boldness of the self-representation of the people. I was fascinated, deeply curious to know what this was all about. I didn’t investigate further until the late '90s, when I went to New Orleans and shot footage of the St Joseph Night Parade. I kept that for a few years, not knowing what to do with it. But a screenwriting student of mine at Bard College and I fell into conversation one day about Mardi Gras Indians. He knew about them. I said I had Super 8 footage of them and he offered to have his friends transfer it to digital and cut it for me. My students helped me begin this film.
Simultaneously, I was writing a screenplay, which has been many years in evolution, with Charles Burnett. He and I developed a great friendship while working on that script; I told Charles about my Mardi Gras Indians documentary idea, suggested that he direct it. He said, “Make it yourself. You know these people. You did the research. Make the film.” Because I have such esteem for Charles, I thought, you know, he knows what he’s talking about, so I did it.
JM: How did Tootie become your lead character?
LK: I like telling stories and there were many interesting characters. I had to find one for the center spot. When I visited New Orleans five years ago, I asked Mike Smith who’d make the best central character. He said, “Without question, Tootie Montana.” I’d been in town several days; word was out that someone from New York was interested in making a film about the Indians. By the time I called Tootie, he knew all about me. His attitude was kind of like, "Why’d you wait three days to call me?"
JM: After meeting him in the movie, I can hear him saying that.
LK: Yeah. He basically said, "You can’t make a film about the Indians if I’m not a central part of it." By the end of our five-minute phone conversation, I knew he’d be the center of the film. He invited me to his house. I brought my tape recorder -- he was such a great raconteur, I was completely rapt.
We were going to start filming in 2002, but I didn’t have the money. It turned out Tootie wasn’t going to mask that year -- which was good for me. We shot some in 2003, but began shooting in earnest in 2004.
JM: It’s amazing that you had footage of Tootie’s death. How’d you get it?
LK: I wasn’t in New Orleans. That was shot by the cable company that covers City Council chambers, where Tootie had his heart attack. We were given the footage, which we cut. Tootie’s widow didn’t want anything graphic shown. We had footage of Tootie on a stretcher. It was heartbreaking, but we didn’t use it. You know, Tootie died exactly one week after my mother died. That’s why I wasn’t in New Orleans.
One thing people come to understand after spending time in New Orleans is that death is treated differently (there) than in other places in America -- treated in a way that’s distinctly African. The jazz funeral is a recapitulation of African understandings about death -- that it’s not necessarily a severing of life, or the spiritual life of the individual, but just a kind of shift to another plane of existence. Of course, a person’s mourned and dirges are played, but when returning from the funeral, upbeat music is played. The person’s life is celebrated and there’s the notion that the person has gone to a better place -- and that’s tied to African beliefs.
Going to jazz funerals with Tootie, then going to his jazz funeral, I gained a new feeling for the relationship between life and death and, on a very personal level, the import for me in making the film has so much to do with coming to this awareness, which had so much to do with my mother’s death.
JM: Which is probably why I was moved to tears by the film.
JM: Yes, several times.
JM: For me -- and this is where your screenwriter skills probably come into play -- the relationship between Tootie and his son Darryl is so moving. You establish and continue it -- Tootie denies Darryl praise and retains his own dominance as Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas, but Darryl so needs to hear Tootie call him ‘pretty,‘ and so forth. The depth and complexity of their relationship, established without any commentary against the historical and cultural background of the Mardi Gras Indians, is astounding.
LK: They were filled with need to tell their story. People ask whether I began the project knowing this. I had no idea. When we started filming, Tootie said things about Darryl, Darryl said things about Tootie, and it evolved. Once the two sides of the story emerged, I realized it’s so much a part of the culture, which is macho and competitive, and mobilizes peoples‘ creative energies on such high levels. But there’s tremendous cost. For Darryl, the cost was in being his father’s son -- because his father is, well, he is what he is, and you don’t really need to say anything more.
JM: They’re a New Orleans version of Mommie Dearest, in a way.
LK: Yeah, yeah. Other people have said King Lear, but I think it’s actually closer to Mommie Dearest. But it’s a universal story -- a familial thing. I was glad they could speak out.
Posted at May 1, 2007 12:09 AM
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