Tradition is rooted in history, and history is littered with things we’d rather forget. Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras celebration is the oldest in the U.S., and some aspects of it, like a customary float depicting Folly chasing Death around a broken column, can’t fully be explained even by those who grew up there. Others, like the fact that the celebration, the pride of the city and the generator of $227 million of income a year, is blatantly and surreally segregated into separate parades and pairings of Mardi Gras kings and queens for the black and white populations, can be broken down without much effort. But most of the people interviewed in Margaret Brown’s superb documentary “The Order of Myths” instead perform an exquisite verbal dance around the issue, citing tradition, roots, history and the debatable fact that everyone prefers it this way. “The Order of Myths” is a tender, unsparing portrait of Mobile’s Mardi Gras, but it’s also a tremendously rich examination of how people carry on from day to day while negotiating the minefields of the past.
Helen Meagher, a coltish blond with a sweet-natured smile, is designated queen of Mardi Gras by the MCA &151; the Mobile Carnival Association, an all-white, old school Alabama organization. Stefanie Lucas, a glowingly round-faced elementary school teacher, is proclaimed queen by the all-black, slightly newer but just as entrenched MAMGA the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, once the Colored Carnival Association. As the film follows the queens and their accompanying kings through the fittings, coronations, lunches and balls leading up to the parades, it dips into the past, recent and further back. Helen comes from a long line of property owners and, once, slaveholders, one of whom commissioned the last slave ship to come from Africa over 50 years after the slave trade has been outlawed. Stefanie’s ancestors arrived on that ship. Elsewhere, the costumes of some of the secret “mystic” societies who make up the parades recall, without question, those of the KKK; an outspoken debutante discusses her own liberal nature and free spirit while gradually being seduced by all of the pageantry; a few paeans are composed to moon pies; and the MAMGA king and queen pay an unprecedented visit to the MCA coronation.
It’s heady material, but Brown doesn’t let it bear the entire burden of the film. “The Order of Myths” is beautifully composed and shot, and, even better, delicately edited while none of the subjects are let off easy, none are given unfair treatment. Parallels that could have been hammered in are allowed to breathe someone discusses the city’s love of the old oak trees that line the streets and makes a note of how they represent, literally, the area’s roots; later, we see an image of a 19-year-old man who was found hanging from one of those trees in 1981, one of the country’s last reported lynchings. A reveal, late in the film, of the filmmaker’s own connections to Mobile and the carnival draws the film’s fond and rueful tone together. Only someone who came from this world would have this kind of knowledge and access, and only someone with a bit of remove would be able to present it in such sharp detail.
[Photo: “The Order of Myths,” Margaret Brown, 2008]
+ “The Order of Myths” (SXSW)