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All On a Mardi Gras Day filmmaker Royce Osborn dies at age 58

25th September 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

It was always easy to imagine Royce Osborn’s perpetual smile somewhere inside the big, somewhat frightening, paper mache skull that he donned when masking skeleton on Carnival Day. The filmmaker and his brother Alton decided to joined the North Side Skull and Bone gang while Osborn was doing research for his award-winning, exemplary documentary, “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” Osborn filmed, wrote, directed, produced and narrated the 2003 jewel that introduced the world to the New Orleans Black community’s unique Carnival and beyond traditions of skeletons, Mardi Gras Indians, baby dolls and social aid and pleasure clubs. Royce Osborn died on September 14, 2017 at the age of 58. He leaves this work and his deep love for the culture as his legacy.

A New Orleans native who grew up in the 7th Ward, Osborn is quoted in Ronald Lewis’ book, The House of Dance & Feathers as saying, “I vaguely had an ancient memory of skeletons on the street… but I might have repressed it completely because it was too scary and weird.”

Asked if the notably laid-back Osborn became fearsome when masking skeleton, Lewis, who stood by Osborn’s side in the North Side gang under the leadership of the legendary and influential Chief Al Morris and remains as the gang’s gatekeeper, quickly answers, “He was just Royce. He ain’t that type of personality.”

A graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and a U.S. Navy veteran, Osborn worked for 20 years as a writer and producer of the NAACP Image Awards. He himself won two such awards — in 2005 and 2009 — that honor African Americans for their contributions to the arts. Later, he was also recognized by the New Orleans Film Festival and received a Louisiana Filmmaker Award for “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” Osborn returned to New Orleans in 1997 equipped with a wealth of experience and knowledge.

“He had the skills of a Los Angeles film writer and he was writing about his hometown,” says Luther Gray, the co-founder of the Congo Square Preservation Society and leader of the ensemble Bamboula 2004. Osborn wrote the script for a short documentary about the historic Congo Square on which he naturally collaborated with Gray. The percussionist also “had the honor” to travel with Osborn along with several Mardi Gras Indians to Guatemala and Honduras as part of a state department-sponsored cultural exchange program.

“I always loved his writing style for film,” declares Gray, particularly mentioning his work on “All On a Mardi Gras Day.” “He was able to put it (the culture that he was “born into”) in everyday terms but factually cover everything that needed to be covered. I appreciated his way of being conversational inside a documentary. He brought people to life and he’d find the right images to go along with his dialogue. It hypnotized you.”

“It was a great educational tool,” declares Lewis, who is also president of the Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club. “‘All On a Mardi Gras Day’ gave more of a visual and verbal insight into what this whole thing is about – it covered the whole scenario of everything that we do. He was just a good person and he was true to what he was doing.” Lewis also remembers Osborn’s kind nature when he’d come down to his 9th Ward home to check up on him after Katrina.

“Royce believed that the story needed to be told,” says his brother Alton. “We’d say, ‘This is ours.’”

Osborn put on his “bones” on Carnival Day 2016 and 2017 as a member of the Congo Square Skull & Bone Gang. Due to his physical limitations, he and Alton rode around in one of those small, electric cars, the kind that tourists often rent. Lewis remembers seeing the siblings in the decorated vehicle and he and Royce having a few laughs together. It was the last meeting of the two skeletons.

“Royce liked being the first on the street,” says Dama, his wife of 17 years, about her husband’s initial involvement with the North Side Skull and Bone gang. “He enjoyed the African concept of celebrating death.”

Osborn’s film making also included his work on “If Those Brick Could Talk,” which focused on the human side of the destruction of the Lafitte House Project. Osborn, a laid-back, soon come individual, was perhaps almost as well known locally for his love of reggae music and the Jamaican culture as he was for his film making.

“I know the music moved him,” says Royce as he recalls his older brother telling him: “Listen more to message music and listen more about the importance of social injustice.”

Royce Osborn continued to have his trademark smile on his face when he accepted the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame’s “Capturing the Spirit” award at a ceremony held just last August. Osborn not only “captured the spirit” of New Orleans unique Black culture on film, he offered it as a personal gift to the world.

As a memorial to Royce Osborn, “All On a Mardi Gras Day,” as well as other of his works, will be screened at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 8, at the George & Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center, 1225, N. Rampart St. It will be followed by a second line that heads to Congo Square to unite with Luther Gray’s weekly drumming sessions.

This article originally published in the September 25, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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