Margaret Brown’s documentary about Mobile, Alabama’s deeply rooted Mardi Gras tradition begins with Folly and Death chasing each other around a parade float. It’s a retrospectively ironic image, as The Order of Myths goes on to illustrate how the dual symbols — and the institutions of racism, classism and segregation — form the dark history of a ritual based ostensibly on pure amusement.
Mobile is the site of some telling American firsts and lasts: the first Mardi Gras and the last slave ship to enter the country. That ship, the Clotilde, was owned by Timothy Meaher, whose family currently controls most of the land in Mobile’s Africatown and whose descendent, Helen Meaher, is the 2007 Mardi Gras Queen for an all-white organization. More ironies: her counterpart is Stefannie Lucas, the Queen for an all-black organization, whose ancestors were human cargo aboard the Clotilde. Though last year’s celebration broke hopeful ground with both pairs of “royalty” attending each other’s coronations, black and white parades remain separate and exclusive in Mobile, with whites and their secret “mystic societies” actively staying away from blacks; blacks, meanwhile, only participate in white parades as dancers, torch bearers and musicians.
Over the course of Myths it becomes apparent that Mardi Gras’ “lord of misrule” is really the lord of old rules. Brown’s family has its own ties to white high society, but she intelligently infiltrates the hoopla and reveals how precisely coordinated rites keep discrimination and inequality culturally intact. Even if she occasionally sidesteps potentially explosive subplots, as when Mobile’s shameful legacy of modern lynching is left on the back burner, her Myths is an essential investigation of American mask and reality.