Mobile, Alabama is home to the country’s oldest Mardi Gras celebration, an event that consumes the city with parades, masked balls, mystic societies and the coronation of the year’s king and queen. Well, kings and queens — as revealed in Margaret Brown’s astonishingly good documentary “The Order of Myths,” Mobile, a city composed of near-equal African-American and white populations, sees two separate and racially segregated celebrations unfold side by side with little contact between them. The film peers into the many strata and segments of Mobile society as Carnival preparations accelerate, painting a detailed and unsparing portrait of modern life balanced with not always pleasant history and tradition. Brown, whose first film, “Be Here to Love Me,” looked at the life of Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, is tackling a more personal topic here — she grew up in Mobile, and brings to the film the rueful insights of someone intimate with the city’s pageantry and problems. After its premiere at Sundance, “The Order of Myths” garnered acclaim at Silverdocs and at the SXSW Film Festival, where I got a chance to talk to Brown about moon pies, Mardi Gras and how much of herself she decided to put in her film.
What made you choose the Mobile Mardi Gras as a topic?
I’ve always wanted to do something in Mobile, because it’s where I’m from. I thought it was going to be a narrative. I went down there to research, and started meeting people, and just thought, “This is actually a great moment in living history that needs to be captured,” so I decided to make it into a documentary.
My last film, “Be Here to Love Me,” was a movie about someone who died in 1997, so I wanted to make a vérité film, or primarily vérité, that wasn’t dependent on recreating things. I wanted to film an event so I could see what that was like as a filmmaker, go into something and not know what would happen.
How did you decide that you wanted it to be vérité, given your personal attachment — that you wanted to keep yourself…
…Out of it? When we first started shooting, I put myself into some of the scenes with my grandfather, but it just wasn’t good. Personal films — I’m not a big fan. Ross McElwee, he can rock that, you know? But not a lot of people can, and I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. I was also interested in not weighing down the film with that information. I want you to bring your own prejudice and your own experience to the film. I made the film to open dialogue and have people start talking about race, and race is really hard to talk about. I think the film offers a way for people to get in. I didn’t want to personalize it, because then it might be harder to have that dialogue start.
I’d imagine a lot of people watching this film find it a little outrageous that things in Mobile exist openly the way that they do, but you grew up in the middle of it. Was there a point when you thought “this must seem so bizarre”? People in the film often seemed too close to see it…
Myself included. I didn’t know about the black Mardi Gras until I was an adult. It just wasn’t part of my mentality, because it was so separate. I didn’t make the film to make people think, “Oh, Mobile. How fucked up and weird is that place?” I think this stuff is everywhere. Maybe it’s not as obvious, and maybe people aren’t as unapologetic about it. The film is focused on small moments. There are small moments all the time in my life, in New York, in Austin. Bullshit if people say it’s just [in Mobile] — don’t pretend it’s so much culture shock. It’s everywhere. It’s everybody. That’s my little high-horse thing.
Were people ever reluctant to give you access?
People were definitely reluctant. The Mobile Carnival Association [overseers of “white Mardi Gras”] invited us to the rehearsal of their coronation — we never to this day figured out why they [then said] “You can’t film the rehearsal… Actually, we don’t know if you can film the rest of the thing.” I guess some of the parents were worried about how their kids would look. They let us start filming again, but we missed shooting — we have some stuff of the MAMGA [overseers of “black Mardi Gras”] rehearsal in the movie, but we don’t have any MCA rehearsal because we weren’t allowed to film it.
Some of the subjects you chose to follow, the Mardi Gras royalty, are self-explanatory, but how did you pick the others? The one that stood out to me was Brittain [Youngblood, a debutante].
The film actually started with her, because she was someone who in certain ways was a lot like me — we both went to college at Brown, and we both considered ourselves liberals. We both rebelled against where we were from to a certain degree, but I never decided to be a debutante. I filmed her before anybody else — the scene where she gets her dress fitted by Maggie the designer, we did that months before we shot anything [else].
I was really impressed by the look of the film. Having a documentary that’s actually shot well doesn’t seem to be a priority for many filmmakers.
Which is so sad, because so many of the historically important documentaries are beautiful. I’m a visual person, I don’t like sloppy filmmaking, and this is a film about a pageant; it has to look good. It meant a lot to me. Michael Simmonds, who was the main cinematographer, shot the pageant itself but then we went back after Mardi Gras was over and got the flavor of the humidity of the city, the feel of the place — we really wanted to bring that out visually. We were still shooting that stuff one month before Sundance, just getting it right.
Can you tell me about your grandfather? He’s not introduced as such — there are different reveals throughout the film, his initial involvement, and then further, and then finally the nature of his relationship with you. How did that become something marking the film throughout?
I grappled with how there can be people that I love so much who also are racist — that was part of why I wanted to make this film. I love [my grandfather], but there are fundamental differences in how we feel, and I wanted to be able to show both, show a man who’s obviously an entertaining, patriarchal guy, an amazing storyteller, and have him be the unofficial narrator of the film. Have him say, “Well, the black people want it that way,” which you can tell is not true, and then reveal that he’s my grandfather and show the love he has for my mother and my family. I wanted all those things to be there because it’s so confusing and complicated. He’s there at the end because, like I said before, I didn’t want to influence. I wanted to make a personal film, but not in the format of a personal film.
So did the debutante lifestyle never hold any appeal to you? Brittain’s storyline, particularly, seemed to show how someone could have become distant from that world and still get pulled back in.
Who doesn’t like a pretty dress? When I was that age and made a decision not to do it, it wasn’t at all because it was segregated — I wasn’t even aware of that — it was more that the people that did it weren’t people that I was really friends with. They were more conservative than me and had gone to the private high school. I just didn’t think it would be fun to go to parties with them. What would I talk about?
Brittain went to a private high school with a lot of those girls, though they might have not been the best of friends. I think it was really important to her family for her to do it. In my family, my granddad really wanted me to do it, but my mother, who has been a Mardi Gras queen, would take me aside and say, “Please don’t do it. I kind of think it’s a waste of money, and you don’t have anything to show for it.” For me, it wasn’t a priority, becoming part of the white social elite of Mobile, Alabama.
Can you explain the moon pie thing to me? All I know is that they’re something thrown from floats.
I’ve done a poll in almost every screening, and people in the South know what they are, but not everyone at Sundance did. It’s this chocolate-covered graham cracker with a marshmallow in the middle. Have you ever had one?
I should have brought you one.
They do sound good.
They’re delicious. They have them at bodegas in New York, but they’re not always as fresh. The MoonPie company was amazing. One of my producers, Gabby, said, “Why don’t we get moon pies for Sundance for the royalty to throw from a car down Main Street?” She called them, and they sent us 600 moon pies. We love the MoonPie company. They’re great.
[Additional photos: Mardi Gras Queen Stefannie Lucas at her coronation; Mardi Gras Queen Helen Meaher at the 2007 Strikers Ball, Cinema Guild, 2008]
“The Order of Myths” is now playing in New York.