Review: The Order of Myths
Alabama native Margaret Brown made a strong impression four years ago with Be Here to Love Me, her tender docu-portrait of late Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt, the renowned songwriter (and drinker) who died in 1997 of a heart embolism. For her second feature, Brown travels to her hometown of Mobile to examine the noxiously persistent racial segregation of that city’s tradition-soaked Mardi Gras festivities. Home to America’s first Mardi Gras, celebrated since 1703, Mobile today hosts mystic societies, masked balls, exotic pageants and parades, and two glitzy coronation ceremonies—one all-black, one all-white—that reflect and reinforce embarrassingly hoary social codes inherited from the antebellum South.
With unprecedented access to the full-tilt preparations and events surrounding the separate carnivals, Brown interviews members of the Order of Myths and the Strikers, two of the oldest secret societies, as well as tailors, float makers, couturiers, and one black activist, Dora Finley, who seeks to raise consciousness about Mobile’s Jim Crow–style celebrations. But the true subjects of her film are elementary schoolteachers Joseph Roberson and Steffanie Lucas, the 2007 black Mardi Gras king and queen, and Helen Meaher, the latter’s wealthy counterpart in the white royal court. Little by little, she reveals the intriguing subtleties of race and class at work beneath all the revelry, and how Lucas and Meaher have a shared history revolving around the Clothilde, a slave ship illegally smuggled into the U.S. by Meaher’s ancestor. (Brown’s own intriguing personal connection to Mardi Gras surfaces even more delicately at the end of the film.)
Gorgeously photographed by DP Michael Simmonds (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop) and crisply edited by Brown, who hews close to the pure observational style of traditional documentary, The Order of Myths is an exemplary exercise in highly localized, quasi-ethnographic filmmaking. We see and learn a great deal about Mardi Gras, local Mobile history (some of it, like the founding of Africatown, shameful), the importance of tradition in the Deep South, and the racially coded social attitudes that accompany its 21st-century modes of expression. Despite a wealth of potential gotcha moments, Brown never allows the film to adopt a snidely didactic or indignant tone, even though certain moments — as when riders on a white carnival float deliberately refrain from tossing Moon Pies to black children—seem to scream out for Michael Moore’s derisive touch.
To her credit, Brown is more interested in dynamics than polemics. One of the most sympathetic voices in the film, in fact, belongs to Brittain Youngblood, a smart, classically pretty blonde debutante whose Brown University pedigree and progressive outlook on the race divide can’t quite cover the oddly patronizing relationship she has with her black nanny. But those contradictions and complexities are what buoy the sociological interest of Myths. Though site-specific, the film unravels the knotted racial politics of an age-old ritual, but it’s ultimately a reflecting pool for how strained race relations are in the United States as a whole, evident in daily news reports on the neck-and-neck presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama. Ambivalence is fundamental to our all-American rituals, Brown’s film suggests, as well as the elaborate myths and masks that sustain our self-identity.
The Order of Myths, 2008. CinemaGuild.
Dir. Margaret Brown. 80min.