Too many, with not much to say, and increasingly less diversity in the modes of telling—why would people go to docs when the recipe so often boils down to little more than: Hot Button Issue + Sketchy “Cultural Impact” of Said Issue + How Issue Affects My Family, Man + Gotcha! Exposé Moment –Attempts at Aesthetic Unity = Film. Thank goodness then for the bracing eye and refreshing candor of Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths, which purports to do nothing more than document the ongoing oddities of Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras festivities, but ends up subtly and cleanly unpacking our country’s uneasy history of racial tension.
In 2007, Brown, responsible for the lilting, if insubstantial Townes Van Zandt doc Be Here to Love Me, and a terrifically meta video for Okkervil River’s “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” went back to her hometown of Mobile, the birthplace of Mardi Gras in this country, to document the festivities. Carnival in Mobile is a special animal: sixty-seven years ago, black members of the community, tired of exclusion by the white “Mystic” societies from a central place in the celebration, established their own parallel Mardi Gras, with similar events, a separate royal court and different parade route. Brown’s film builds itself off of interviews with the “royalty” chosen by both the Mobile Area Carnival Association (MACA—the white organization) and Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA—the black group) and supporting figures coupled with nicely lensed verité footage of the preparations and festival itself. The elements are simple, but the cumulative effect of her editorial inclusions and juxtapositions is overwhelming.
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.