Although I'm from New Orleans and celebrated Mardi Gras annually throughout childhood, I knew little about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, except that they're very proud to have the oldest American Mardi Gras celebrations, since 1703. (They love to brag to New Orleanians about this.) Margaret Brown's latest documentary, The Order of Myths, showed me that New Orleans isn't the only city with racial issues rife in its Carnival festivities. The movie premiered at Sundance last month before making its way to SXSW.
The Order of Myths focuses on the 2007 Mardi Gras preparations in Mobile, which are blatantly divided by race. Most of the city's parade organizations are all-white; one integrated group founded in 2003, and has a single white member. Mobile has two separate sets of Mardi Gras royalty: a white king and queen (Max Bruckmann and Helen Meaher) and an African-American king and queen (Joseph Roberson and Stefannie Lucas). The movie alternates between the preparations for each side of the segregated Mardi Gras: the clothing designers for the royalty and their courts; the parties and luncheons; and the everyday lives of the people involved.
The differences between the two sets of Carnival royalty are notable. Bruckmann gets a key to the city from the mayor, but not Roberson. Meaher is from a very old Mobile family -- in fact, there's a story about one of her ancestors owning an illegal slave ship and setting it afire with slaves aboard in order to escape prosecution. The slaves escaped and many of their descendants live in the Mobile area -- Lucas says at one point, "My people were on her people's ship." Roberson and Lucas are both teachers in the same school -- we see Lucas teaching their students about Black History Month, which occurs around the same time as Mardi Gras. She also worries about how much being a Mardi Gras queen can cost, and estimates the financial output as "a car."
Sometimes the camera says it all -- at the parties for the white royalty, the only black people to be seen are serving drinks or working in the kitchen. And as accepting as the interview subjects try to be, focusing not on race but on tradition ("this is how it's always been, and everyone likes it this way"), they sometimes slip. One minute, a guy in a Carnival mask tells us that in Mobile, "we get along fine with the blacks," and in the next minute he's referring to them as "colored people." Meaher's train designer blithely tells us that Mobile is different from New Orleans because New Orleans has a number of kings and queens of Carnival balls, "In Mobile, there is only one queen of Mardi Gras."
The Order of Myths handles both sides of the racial issues impressively -- most of the comments about how "nothing needs to change" come from white people, and it's Roberson and Lucas who decide to work for at least one small step towards unity or at least equity. I wished we'd heard a little more about gender segregation and inequality in Mardi Gras celebrations, which is a big deal in New Orleans, and I did notice that many of the parade organizations seemed to be not just all-white but all-male. But that might have diffused the focus of the film too much and diluted its impact.
One unexpected side effect of the movie was that it made me crave Moon Pies afterward. (In Mobile, they throw Moon Pies off the parade floats, and the film included some hilarious student essays about the sweet Southern delicacy.) Director Margaret Brown (Be Here to Love Me) ends the film by showing us her personal ties to the subject matter, in a way that is unobtrusive and touching. The Order of Myths gives us a good feel for the fun and exciting parts of Mobile's Mardi Gras as well as the undercurrent of "traditional" racial segregation that still exists today.