________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 16 . . . . April 4, 2008


Maroon: On the Trail of Creoles in North America.

André Gladu (Writer & Director). Colette Loumède (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
85 min., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: C0105 111.

Subject Heading:

Review by Frank Loreto.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

*** /4

North America is a land of constant change. Cultures blend, some are changed and some are threatened with extinction. In Maroon, writer/director André Gladu shows his concern for the fate of the Creole culture in Louisiana. By definition, creole is a mixture of Black and White cultures. While Gladu's primary focus is the francophone aspect of the Creoles' history, the film shows that this is a complex people and their history needs to be told.

     Maroon begins with a man praying to an old tree, trying to invoke the tree's spirit which has seen hundreds of years of changes in Louisiana. The past is important as are the spirits of all the people who have come before. The "maroon" in the film's title refers to those slaves who never accepted slavery. They escaped and survived in the swamps with the help of Native Americans. They actively worked against the enslavement of others by either undermining the work of the slave owners or encouraging other slaves to join with them. The word comes from the Portuguese "cimarron" which means a domestic animal that has gone wild again. Following the 1791 slave revolt in Haiti, large numbers of French speaking liberated slaves moved to the French quarter of New Orleans. In 1811, the largest slave revolt in the U.S. took place in Louisiana, one probably spurred on by the success of the revolt in Haiti. The Maroons were a threat to the White society, and, if caught, they were killed or branded with the letter "M" on their faces.

     In New Orleans, slaves were allowed to be free on Sundays until 9 p.m. They often gathered together and shared stories, music and dance. They were able to find a connection to the Biblical stories they learned and their traditional African music. The Bible stories were memorized as it was illegal for a slave to learn to read or write. The central meeting place, Congo Square, became a blending place for many cultures. Negro spirituals fused with sacred blues. Improvisation led to the birth of jazz. At the same time, an underground culture, rich with African traditions continued to flourish. Other cultures came to Congo Square to watch and enjoy the music. Sundays were filled with great activity, but, at 9 p.m., a gun would go off and the slaves would return to where they called home.

     Creole originally meant someone French born in the New World. After the Louisiana Purchase, the word was used to differentiate them from Yankees. After the Civil War, the term was applied to free people of colour or emancipated slaves. The Creoles initially were allowed certain privileges denied Blacks. They were educated and often financially secure. The classically trained Creole musicians added another dimension to the creation of jazz at that time. 

     250,000 people claim a Creole connection, but the film shows that today the definition is in flux.  One speaker interviewed, a francophone from Africa, includes himself as well as French speaking Vietnamese in the Creole mix. The definition continues to change; however, the culture must be preserved. There is concern that this is not happening. Older speakers admit that they were beaten as children if they spoke Creole while in school. Their own children do not want to speak Creole. They state that Cajun music is very alive, but Creole music is not. An older Creole musician says he had to search hard to find two musicians willing to learn the Creole style, and neither of them were French or from Louisiana.

     Maroon is an ambitious film. The history aspect of the Creole story is well done, but too many other topics get blended in. Much of the film looks at the music that came and comes from Louisiana. For this reason alone, the film should be used in a music history class. There is a great deal of music, and one of the bonus tracks shows the difference between the more classical jazz played by Sidney Bechet and the hotter jazz style of the time. As it looks at a different French culture in North America, Maroon could be used as a cautionary tale for Quebec. There is nothing in place from a federal position to protect the Creole culture.

     The film follows the elaborate preparation for Mardi Gras and features traditional costume and song. In the celebration, someone catches a chicken and wrings its neck on camera. Although this act happens very quickly, for the faint-hearted, this scene could be disturbing. Despite that, Maroon would have applicability in Music, History, French, Society Challenge and Change. At 85 minutes, it is too long for one class, and, if shown as a whole, students may lose interest. There are very good parts in this film, but overall it tries to do too much.

Recommended with reservations.

Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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