We're told at the beginning of The Order of Myths that Mobile, Alabama, celebrated the first Mardi Gras in the United States in 1703 - 15 years before New Orleans was even a city. Last year, Margaret Brown and a film crew set out to document Mobile's annual Mardi Gras celebration and discovered that things really haven't changed much over the past 300 years.
Early in this engaging film, a carnival-masked white guy claims there's no racial separation in Mobile. But it soon becomes obvious that, as one older black woman says, "Mardi Gras is the last stronghold of segregation." There are two Mardi Gras in Mobile: one for black people, one for white people. Each has an organization that picks its own king, queen and court. Not so surprisingly, both maintain that they are the ones representing the city.
And it's no accident Mobile's black and white residents rarely appear together onscreen. When they do, black folks are either serving privileged whites or hemming their dresses. This certainly isn't lost on Brown, who reveals her own surprising tie to the festivities at the end of the movie. The director juxtaposes scenes of blacks and whites preparing for their soirees; the differences couldn't be greater.
White queens are chosen based on pedigree; the 2007 pick even admits that she was probably crowned because her grandmother is the city's oldest living queen. The girl's ancestors were directly responsible for bringing the last slave ship to the U.S., well after trading had been abolished. In a tidy twist, the black queen turns out to be descended from that final group of slaves. "My people was on her people's ship," she says.
Still, Myth's racial divide can be subtle. Every year, the white committee branches off into various "secret societies," which hold costume parties leading up to the big event. Is it a coincidence that their robes look like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan? Probably not, since Brown makes a point to show photos of a young black man who was lynched in Mobile in 1981.
To their credit, most of the white kids don't come off as cautiously racist as their parents and grandparents. They dismiss all the pomp and circumstance (as well as the segregation) as "heritage." But, as Brown makes shrewdly clear without saying as much, tell that to the black children who don't get beads or moon pies tossed at them by white paraders. Or to the old black woman who's told that black people "like" that they have their own Mardi Gras. "Well," she sighs, "we don't have a choice."