When Wendell Pierce was a child growing up in Pontchartrain Park, Mardi Gras meant trips to Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street.
“Part of that morning’s ritual was to seek out the Indians,” said the actor, now famed for roles in the HBO series “Treme” and “The Wire.” “To be able to see a group of Indians, it was like an adventure for me.”
Winner of Tony, Emmy, Obie and Peabody awards, Pierce steps into a new role Saturday, presenting the local premiere of “We Won’t Bow Down,” a documentary about the city’s fantastically costumed, chanting Mardi Gras Indians.
Proceeds from Saturday’s two screenings of “We Won’t Bow Down” at the National World War II Museum will benefit the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association.
Pierce attended his first Indian practice as a young man, after his graduation from the Juilliard School’s drama division.
“That’s when I realized that the Indians were a grassroots cultural movement that I had only scratched the surface of,” he said.
Pierce has subsequently attended Indian practices whenever he was in New Orleans on Mardi Gras weekend.
“It’s always moving, exciting, fun,” he said. “It’s a profoundly interesting cultural phenomenon happening right in our back yards in New Orleans.”
Chris Bower, the Asheville, N.C.-based writer-director of “We Won’t Bow Down,” found himself similarly moved when he first encountered a Mardi Gras Indian. It happened in 2006, on the first St. Joseph’s Night after Hurricane Katrina. Traditionally, St. Joseph’s Night is a magical evening of Indian parading. Victor Harris, big chief of the Spirit of FiYiYi, provided Bower’s first Indian sighting.
“He was singing a prayer calling for the people of New Orleans to return home,” Bower recalled. “Chills moved up and down my body. The spirit was in the air so intensely, with this prayer and this chant. I’ve really not seen anything like it since.”
Bower and producer Steve Mann, an Asheville photographer, collaborated on “We Won’t Bow Down” over the course of eight years. Monica Cooper, a Baton Rouge native who’s worked in the film industry in Los Angeles for 25 years, later came aboard as a producer.
“It was a labor of love,” Bower said. “We’d come down when we could and work on it when we could afford to do it. But from the outset, we wanted to take a long while with the process. We wanted to learn directly from the Indians what’s really happening in the streets, in the Indian nation.”
“We Won’t Bow Down” inspired an enthusiastic, emotional response at its national premiere in February at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles. It’s currently playing the film festival circuit.
The intricate, concentrated, time-consuming work Indians dedicate to preparing their suits and songs for Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph Day emboldened Bower and Mann’s filmmaking labors.
“The extreme nature of what the Indians are doing is overwhelming,” the director said. “It’s also inspiring. We felt like the two processes aligned.”
Pierce sees parallels between the Indians’ post-Katrina comeback and the community-led revival of Pontchartrain Park, a subdivision founded for African-American families at a time when they were banned from other new developments.
“That same resilience and pride that is exhibited in the artistry of the Mardi Gras Indians is manifested in my neighborhood,” the actor said.
He’s also proud of the work of that Clarke Peters, his “Treme” co-star, did as Mardi Indian chief Albert Lambreaux in the series.
“People go to Italy to hear opera at La Scala,” Pierce said. “People go to Paris to see the museums and New York to see Broadway. People come to New Orleans to see the culture of the Mardi Gras Indians.”