'Other' Mardi Gras gets day at film fest

Times Staff Writer

Rowdy crowds and colorful parade floats have long symbolized New Orleans' Mardi Gras celebration. But there is also a subculture called the Mardi Gras Indians -- dating from the 19th century -- where Native American and African American traditions come together on the city's streets.

It was this lesser studied tradition that led Lisa Katzman to make her first documentary, "Tootie's Last Suit." The film explores the relationships, rituals and artistic accomplishments of Mardi Gras Indian culture, featuring "Big Chief" Tootie Montana with Wynton Marsalis and Dr. John.

"The Mardi Gras Indians only come out on Carnival Day," Katzman explained in a telephone interview this week from New Orleans, where she teaches screenwriting at Tulane University. "The film is about Tootie Montana, the most revered chief. He masqueraded for 52 years. The tradition is to make a new carnival costume every year. It's painstaking beaded work."

Katzman's documentary is among the 175 films that will screen at the Pan African Film and Arts Festival in Los Angeles, which begins today and runs through Feb. 18.

The festival is billed as America's premiere black film event. It showcases new films along with critically acclaimed fare like "Ray," "Lackawanna Blues" and "Tsotsi," which won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film at the 2006 Oscar ceremony.

The festival kicks off with an opening night gala at the Directors Guild of America for "Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation," a film written and directed by Charles Burnett that spans 60 years of history dramatizing the African nation's fight for liberation from white-ruled South Africa, which culminated with Namibia's independence in 1990.

As for "Tootie's Last Suit," it will have its L.A. premiere Saturday at 1:45 p.m. at the Magic Johnson Theaters. It will also screen on Monday at 1:20 p.m. at the same venue.

Katzman said she first came to New Orleans in the mid-1990s, and a photographer friend informed her of the Mardi Gras Indians and their rich history in the city.

"I was astonished that there hadn't been a film made in recent years about the black Indians of New Orleans," Katzman recalled. "There was a pretty well-known film made in the 1970s, but nothing more recent. I decided it would be an interesting project."

It didn't take long for her to realize that Tootie Montana should be a key character. "I'd been in town three days," she recalled, and he already knew she was making a film when she called. "He basically told me, 'You can't make a film about the Mardi Gras Indians unless I'm part of it.' "

She noted that, historically, Mardi Gras in New Orleans had been segregated. "The film describes some of that history, how the white carnival crews actually represented some of the elite white concerns. . . . The carnival crews remained -- unbelievably -- segregated until 1991, when a city councilman raised a ruckus. It inflamed the situation. As a result, the old line crews decided they would rather not parade than integrate. Those crews still function as social clubs.

"On the other side, there had always been a black carnival that was separate from the white carnival," she continued. "The speculation on why this started is that there was a kind of affinity between slaves and some of the tribes down [in Louisiana]. They would take in slaves who had escaped into the bayous."

Katzman said her film was shot in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Tootie Montana died during the filming, she noted.

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robert.welkos@latimes.com

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