Celebrating Black Masking Indians, ‘Spy Boy Dow’ premieres tonight at Film Festival

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Spy Bow Dow by Carl Harrison, Jr.

Spy Boy Dow Edwards is the subject of director Carl Harrison Jr.’s latest film, premiering at New Orleans Film Festival tonight. (via NOFF)

Dow Michael Edwards — a lawyer from Uptown New Orleans who grew up loving the Black Masking Indian culture — is headed for a big screen debut in the short film “Spy Boy Dow.” The film directed by Carl Harrison Jr. follows Edwards’ suit-making process in preparation for Mardi Gras Day.

This is Harrison’s second project to be accepted into the New Orleans Film Festival in three years, and it premieres at The Broad Theater tonight (Oct. 18).

The birth of Spy Boy Dow

“The Spy Boy is first in the front… he is ahead looking for trouble. Only a chosen few can be Spy Boy. It’s his job to send a signal to First Flag when he sees other Indians. First Flag signals back down the line to Big Chief. Big Chief has a stick that controls the Indians. When he hits the ground with the stick, they better get down and bow to the Chief.” – the late Big Chief Larry Bannock of Gert Town’s Golden Star Hunters, (via mardigrasneworleans.com)

Edwards is a partner at the Irwin, Fritchie, Urquhart & Moore law firm, and spy boy for the Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe. His interest was sparked as a child when watching Indians with his family on Mardi Gras Day. He admired the tradition and culture from afar until he found a way in.

“In 1989, my secretary was dating Big Chief Tyrone Casby of The Mohawk Hunters in Algiers,” Edwards said. “We met, and I told him how I was always want to be a Mardi Gras Indian. I asked Big Chief, ‘Can I do it?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ I said, ‘Are you going to let me use some your suits?’ He said, ‘Hell no.’ ”

Big Chief Casby told him frankly, “You want to be an Indian, you gotta sew.”

Spy Boy Dow Edwards in his suit depicting “The Glorification of Africa.” (via Carl Harrison, Jr.)

Edwards didn’t think he had any artistic abilities to create his own suit, so he shelved the idea and kept up with the culture as best he could. After Hurricane Katrina, he began noticing signs of outsiders exploiting the cultural identity of New Orleans, he said. He went back to Big Chief and said he was willing to do anything he could to help.

Big Chief responded, “If you want to be in it, you got to be in it.” Edwards said, “If you teach me how to sew, I’m willing to learn how to sew.” That was his first real introduction into the Black Masking culture of New Orleans.

Making the film

Filmmaker Carl Harrison Jr. (via NOFF)

Edwards wanted to develop a personal documentary around the creation of his suit — the first of a three-suit series. He and his wife, Lisa Edwards, reached out to a family friend to help tell the story. Carl Harrison Jr. is a New Orleans filmmaker who grew up with the Edwards’ son.

“From knowing Carl’s background in film, we reached out to him to see if he’d be interested in helping,” Edwards said. “Never did I imagine it being this great.”

Harrison echoed the sentiment, citing the kinship as a main factor putting “Spy Boy Dow” on film. “It was definitely the personal connection,” he said. “Honestly, I hadn’t planned on jumping into this film when we did, but it felt it was necessary. So, I shelved other projects. I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

This will be Harrison’s second short film to screen at New Orleans Film Festival. His first film “Straight Line” was a 2017 festival selection. “I go where I’m inspired,” he said. “I really follow my instinct when it comes to it… ‘Straight Line’ was about my personal experiences of being harassed by the police. I used that as a way to channel what I was feeling in my expressions, the pain that I felt.”

The new film follows the sewing, preparation and presentation of  Edwards’ suit for Mardi Gras Day. “With ‘Spy Boy Dow,’ I felt like I was honoring who we are and the culture of New Orleans,” Harrison said.

“I was often told, ‘There are so many Mardi Gras Indian films, why would you want to do something like that, too?’ But, there still needs to be the stories told from our perspective, and that was really important. My personal connection to Mr. Dow is what made [the project] stronger.”

The film is the filmmaker’s perspective of the subject. Edwards and his wife (who was executive producer on the film) gave Harrison full freedom. Edwards said, “[Harrison’s] framing of the documentary is just amazing because of the way he took voices from certain segments and placed them in context with the movements of the street at that time.”

“For me,” Harrison added, “it really was as if I was making a portrait of a great man.”

Spy Boy Dow masking on Mardi Gras Day 2018 (via Carl Harrison, Jr.)

‘Kill ’em dead with needle and thread’

The joy of masking, Edwards said, begins with the spiritual journey one takes the day after Mardi Gras. Suit concepts typically pay homage to African ancestors and the natives and indigenous people who helped African-Americans gain their freedom.

“Some of us [Indians] are true indigenous people to this land. All of us can’t claim that — and don’t want to claim that, because we’re not cultural appropriators,” he said. “That’s not what we do. What we do is pay respect to our indigenous roots here in America and to our African roots as well.”

Spy Boy Dow Edwards spends five to six hours per day on a new suit for each Mardi Gras Day. (via Carl Harrison, Jr.)

The whole year is a mental preparation and spiritual journey that for the next year: sewing for five or six hours a night, then completing it, then wearing it out on Mardi Gras Day.

The manifestation of all that he put into this, and all that his ancestors went through for freedom, comes together for this day of doing battle through his suit. That’s when the glory comes.

“Kill ’em dead with needle and thread!” he declared.

Interaction with other Masking Indians on Mardi Gras Day, who went through that same spiritual process he did over the course of the year, is a manifestation of what their ancestors did. “This Black Masking culture lets us manifest African identity in a way that we’ve been doing for 300 years.”

Harrison was able to join in on some of the sewing sessions. “I think the most intimate moments were while Mr. Dow was there sewing: the prep, really seeing the details, watching his hands move. You can see, it was like a spirit takes over even while he’s making this… He wasn’t zoned out completely, but he goes into a space that’s just very powerful to be in the presence of.”

Preserving a culture

Spy Boy Dow believes that though the Mardi Gras Indian culture is still being exploited, the state of culture is great. He notes the children’s tribes active on the streets these days as a source of optimism. It’s up to the elders in the culture, he said, to educate and empower the younger people.

“The culture will pull you in like it pulled me in, so I don’t see the culture dying at any point in time,” he said. “The question is, how do we create an opportunity for us to monetize our culture and protect the monetization of the culture? We have to find ways to make sure we protect it for ourselves and make sure that we are the ones that can capitalize on the monetization.”

He noted that they don’t and shouldn’t look at monetization as a primary purpose, but they must protect themselves from others exploiting their culture for commercial gain.

“Is the culture alive and well?” Harrison asked. “Yes, I see it in every child dancing on Mardi Gras Day, or anytime. I see it everywhere.”

Spy Boy Dow (right) and some of the younger members of Mohawk Hunters on Mardi Gras Day 2018. (via Carl Harrison Jr.)

The film is currently being translated into Spanish for submission to Central and Latin American film festivals, as well as “any place where they respect the sewing culture and the indigenous roots,” Harrison said. “I want to share it with the world, in places that have interest New Orleans and in our culture.”

“Spy Bow Dow” premieres in the “Louisiana Shorts: Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” film block at 6:30 p.m. tonight at The Broad Theater, 636 N. Broad St. (tickets here) It airs at The Broad for a second time on Monday at 6:15 p.m. Click the the hyperlinks to see what’s screening at The Broad Theater and Prytania Theater for New Orleans Film Festival 2019.

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