“This is the story of New Orleans’ black Mardi Gras,” says filmmaker Royce Osborn at the beginning of his award-winning 2003 documentary, All on a Mardi Gras Day. Focusing on the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians, skeletons, baby dolls and street parades, Osborn, a New Orleans native, opened up the eyes of the world and even many New Orleans residents to the colorful, primarily African-influenced way that Carnival was and is celebrated in black neighborhoods across the city. Osborn, who grew up in the 7th Ward, died on September 14, 2017 at the age of 58. The hour-long film will long stand as his legacy and gift to the culture he loved.
A graduate of the American Film Institute and a U.S. Navy veteran, Osborn worked for 20 years as a writer and producer for the NAACP Image Awards. He himself won two such awards—in 2005 and 2009—that honor African Americans for their contributions to the arts. He was also recognized by the New Orleans Film Festival and received a Louisiana Filmmaker Award for All On a Mardi Gras Day, which first aired on WYES-TV and then nationally on PBS stations.
Osborn returned to his hometown of New Orleans in 1997 and soon began research on what would become the landmark documentary. That put him in touch with Al Morris, the legendary chief of the North Side Skull and Bone gang. In 2003, Osborn and his brother, Alton Osborn, both joined the skeleton gang under the chief’s wise and watchful eye. They continued to don their bones and skulls until Chief Al retired from the streets in 2006.
“Al was quite an influence on the importance of tradition and how things had to be done a certain way,” Alton remembers, adding that he and his brother both felt, “This is ours.” “Royce believed the story needed to be told.”
“Royce liked being the first on the street,” says Dama, his wife of 17 years about his involvement with the North Side. “He enjoyed the African concept of celebrating death.”
Beyond his filmmaking that included his work on If Those Bricks Could Talk, which focused on the human side of the destruction of the Lafitte Projects, Osborn was perhaps best known for his love of reggae music and the Jamaican culture.
“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.”
In August, Osborn attended the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame Ceremony where he was honored with the Capturing the Spirit Award for All on a Mardi Gras Day. His spirit lives on as he was one with the culture and its people.