The Order of Myths
2008, NR, 97 min. Directed by Margaret Brown.
REVIEWED By Josh Rosenblatt, Fri., Oct. 24, 2008
History is a remarkable thing … with a devious sense of irony. Consider this: In 1859, a wealthy shipyard owner named Timothy Meaher bets a friend he can secretly bring some 150 slaves from Africa into Mobile Bay in Alabama in violation of federal law. Meaher’s plan is found out, and by his orders, the ship’s captain sets the schooner on fire before the authorities can claim its cargo as evidence. Thankfully, the Africans are able to make it off the boat and eventually settle in the woods outside the city, in a rundown hamlet known as Plateau. Nearly 150 years later, in 2007, a direct descendant of Meaher’s is chosen by the all-white Mobile Carnival Association to represent the city as the queen of the Mardi Gras. The queen of the white Mardi Gras, more precisely. And who is selected by the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association to be their queen? None other than a direct descendant of one of those slaves Meaher had brought from Africa in chains all those years ago. How’s that for history coming back to haunt us: two unsuspecting debutantes from mutually distrustful worlds thrust into symbolic roles in a Southern city still plagued by a dark past and de facto segregation in the present. In Brown’s excellent new documentary (which, in the interests of full disclosure, is associate-produced by Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black) about Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations, these sorts of brushes with the past are common occurrences, blurring the line between respectable tradition and loathsome institutional prejudice. Hidden behind all the pageantry and hullabaloo – the opulent gowns, the elaborate papier-mâché floats, the garish masks, the pounding drums, the coronation ceremonies set to British court music – linger the awkwardness and suspicion of a populace at odds with itself, and Brown is at her cinema-verité best when capturing the subtle, nearly imperceptible looks on the faces of people forced into social interactions with others they have no idea how to deal with, much less understand. They’re the kind of looks that are more felt than seen – that are more damaging for being so subtle – and Brown, who grew up in Mobile, has a gift for recognizing and capturing long pauses pregnant with historical significance. “They have their Mardi Gras; we have ours,” the explanation goes on both sides, but everyone seems to realize it’s just a rationalization aimed at covering over Mobile's docile perpetuation of segregation. Trapped under the weight of hundreds of years of racial animosity and mistrust, with few clues as to how to work themselves free, the celebrants of the oldest Mardi Gras in the country take refuge in their traditions, looking to the rituals of the past to help them get by in the present, which – ironically enough – is still burdened with the ugly residue of the past.