"Masked for Battle" film premiere upcoming

Masked for Battle: Mardi Gras Indian Culture Confronts Covid” will premiere on Feb. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at The Ohio State University at Newark. The film will be screened in the John Gilbert Reese Center, room 145, with refreshments from 6–6:30 p.m. A talkback with the student and faculty producers will follow at 7:30 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.

“Masked for Battle” explores the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Mardi Gras Indians, also known as Black masking Indians. The Mardi Gras Indians are groups that parade on improvised routes through their neighborhoods each Mardi Gras, displaying elaborately designed costumes, also called suits, that are hand sewn with beads and feathers. This is the third film in a series of documentaries produced by students at Ohio State Newark that gives voice to participants in a time-honored Black parading tradition in New Orleans.

The pandemic locked down New Orleans shortly after Mardi Gras 2020, disproportionately impacting the Black community, including these legendary culture-bearers. In addition to facing sickness and death in their communities, the Mardi Gras Indians were deprived of practices essential to their tradition, including communal craft work, community gatherings and open-air street performances. With a second consecutive Carnival canceled in 2021, some wondered if they would ever return to the streets — or if their unique New Orleans tradition would become another victim of the pandemic. The film tells the story of their suffering, their perseverance and their return on Mardi Gras Day 2022.

Leading the project were Tiyi Morris, PhD, associate professor of African American and African studies, and Virginia Cope, PhD, associate professor of English and the campus’ associate dean for special programs and outreach and engagement. Morris and Cope prepared students to travel to New Orleans to conduct interviews for each film. “These films tell how these culture-bearers are attempting to preserve a 150-year-old tradition that is essential to New Orleans culture,” said Morris.

A group of students with their professor and Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans.

Mike Yearling of Yearling Pictures has been a longstanding community partner on the films. He traveled to New Orleans for the project and directed the students in production and post production. 

The students involved were Molly Rudduck, Shavonna Simpson, Abyssinia Taddege and Mariyah Thompson, who traveled to Louisiana in 2022 to interview 18 Mardi Gras Indians. They also assisted in post-production editing and research.

“Interviewing LaShundra Brown showed me the importance of the Mardi Gras Indians to New Orleans and how the pandemic impacted their lives and their traditions in so many ways,” says Rudduck, who had the opportunity to interview a nurse and queen with the Wild Magnolias tribe.

All four participating students came to this project with varied backgrounds in terms of interests and majors, including food business management, psychology, environmental sciences and air transportation. This is in keeping with Ohio State’s interest in integration between various disciplines and fields of study, expanding students' mindsets and fostering connections beyond the traditional classroom environment.    

A man with a camera records an adult and a child sitting on a porch step with drums.

The production is the result of a longstanding collaboration among Ohio State Newark and groups representing the Mardi Gras Indians: The Mardi Gras Indian Council, The Queens of the Nation and Guardians of the Flame.

This is the third documentary in a decade-long effort. Earlier films profile the chiefs and queens that lead the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Faculty and students produced “Spirit Leads My Needle: The Big Chiefs of Carnival” in 2014 and “It’s Your Glory: The Queens of Carnival” in 2016, the latter of which was nominated for a 2016 regional Emmy. Those wanting further insight into the Mardi Gras Indian tradition can catch “It’s Your Glory” on Feb. 28 as well from 5:30–6 p.m. before the premiere of “Masked for Battle.”

This film was funded by The Ohio State University at Newark, The Ohio State University Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme, The Ohio State Newark Division of Arts & Humanities, and the Engagement Scholarship Consortium. For more details, please contact Virginia Cope, PhD, at cope.38@osu.edu or 740-366-9293.