It may come as something of a shock to most that in Mobile, Alabama, a culturally sanctified segregation still exists. And documentary filmmaker Margaret Brown must be relying on that shock from viewers of her exacting new film "The Order of Myths," even if it resolutely avoids sensationalism or polemics from the top down. On the face of it, Brown's document of Mobile's annual Mardi Gras celebration, a centuries-old tradition that predates even the establishment of New Orleans and which still maintains separate events for black and white residents, is an energetic, if unsettling, tribute to the strange persistence of tradition; yet like gently lifting a decaying flagstone with a twig, Brown has managed, in a fleet 75 minutes, to uncover quite a lot about (obviously) America's entrenched racism and (perhaps not so obviously) why our presumably modern sensibilities allow for its continuity.
What "The Order of Myths" goes a long way in proving is that racism may simply be an offshoot of the pleasures of cultural exclusivity, from gestures grand (landownership) to the seemingly small (party invitations; club memberships). Separate but not equal, the all-white Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) and the African-American Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) follow similar templates in the days running up to the spirited pre-Lent celebration: each chooses its own king and queen.
In 2007, the year that Brown chose to film Mobile's preparations, coronations, and final parades, the black king and queen are introduced, as though exotic others, to the royal white court--the first time this has happened in the city's history. Rather than bemoan this wildly late-in-coming offer of good will, MAMGA's Queen Stefannie, a likeable local elementary school teacher, remains blitzed and thrilled by the glamorous frivolity of the event; her acquiescence, which Brown neither underlines nor disregards, is one of the film's defining moments, and a perfect expression of how the human need for "acceptance" in the moment can usurp other more politically charged thoughts.
This is especially powerful when one realizes that MCA's chosen royal mistress, Helen, is a descendent of those who had helped smuggle to safety the Clothilde, the last slave ship to enter the U.S., and that this ship undoubtedly carried Stefannie's ancestors as human cargo.
Brown never comes out and admonishes those who offer more insidious reasons for the extension of the traditions (more than a couple of elder whites wistfully reminisce about the days when the Mardi Gras events were even more exclusive). Instead she simply allows the images to speak for themselves: this still being 21st-century America (no matter how much some of them seem to want to deny that) there's a sizable economic gap between the white and black communities, which extends from neighborhoods and schools to the celebration spaces themselves. No one here is "implicated" -- rather, they're part of a tapestry, in which the aspiration to royalty trumps all.
If nothing else, the annual events in Mobile pinpoint that gaudily American desire to play dress-up in the trappings of an illustrious monarchy that we never had, however ill-fitting its costumes may be. Even young Brittain Youngblood, the one self-professed white liberal Brown focuses on, ends up succumbing to her hometown traditions, attending the annual debutante ball in full regalia. As Brown shows us, this is a city so unashamedly tied to its roots that it proudly allows its trees to twist, gnarl, and bust up its sidewalks rather then be uprooted. As the MCA's fumblingly rationalizing Mardi Gras king blathers, it's important to remember "what happened in the past." But it's also important to remember that one of the United States' last reported lynchings, in 1981, occurred in Mobile.
This is highly sophisticated nonfiction filmmaking, and as lensed by Michael Simmonds, the cinematographer on Ramin Bahrani's lovely "Chop Shop," made wonderfully vivid, especially in the final nighttime moments of the Carnival, popping with rich velvety purples and reds. It's here that Brown reminds us that Mobile's African Americans have indeed been traditionally invited to the white parade - as dancers and torchbearers, that is. Brown, whose own grandfather is a member of one of the town's oldest "mystic" societies, a staunch purveyor of tradition, has uncovered a treasure trove of Americana; it seems like a time capsule but its heart still beats. And so it goes on, even if Brown ends on a brilliantly abrupt cut to black.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]