Judge William Lee will throw you some beads, if you show him your Moon Pie.
"It's no conflict like you read in the papers…Birmingham, and places like that. Mobile's Mardi Gras, the blacks and the whites get along fine."
In 1703, fifteen years before New Orleans was established as a city, the first Mardi Gras in the U.S. was celebrated in Mobile, Alabama. The tradition continues to this day as a huge festival that energizes two communities. The black and white residents of Mobile each hold their own Mardi Gras—separate parties, parades and parade routes—and that pronounced segregation is also a deeply rooted tradition.
Facts of the Case
Telling parallel stories, The Order of Myths follows two couples during preparations for the 2007 Mardi Gras. Helen and Max, the queen and king of the all-white Mobile Carnival Association, are two college kids from affluent families. From the other side of town are Stefannie and Joseph, two elementary school teachers representing the royal court of the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. The fact that Helen's ancestor illegally imported a ship full of African slaves to Mobile and Stefannie's ancestor arrived on that ship show how closely connected these people's histories are. The legacy of slavery is a specter that is hard to shake when seeing the country club parties of the whites attended to by the black domestic help.
What is truly fascinating about this look at an American ritual is how the two communities interact during Mardi Gras. Almost none of the people we meet on screen are openly racist even though there is the temptation to label their separate celebrations as such. Rather, it seems that segregation is an accepted quality of Mobile's traditions and that is reason enough for it to continue. Certainly, there are critics who argue for the two carnivals to be merged into one but there is a mutual desire to remain distinct. Something happens during the 2007 event that brings the white and black communities a step closer. The subsequent reaction of people isn't quite acceptance but there is a sense that some profound tension has been eased. These small gestures that indicate traditions can change are hopeful and moving.
Director Margaret Brown, who has her own family roots in the city, is given an extraordinary degree of access behind the scenes of the Mardi Gras in Mobile. Her camera crew captures the work that goes into the creation of elaborate costumes, witnesses the rituals of secret societies with deep histories and calmly observes the divide between two communities. In similar fashion to her film Townes Van Zandt: Be Here to Love Me, Brown eschews voice-over narration in preference of a verité camera style. The viewer is a fly-on-the-wall observer taking in the action. We eavesdrop on private conversations and keep all comments to ourselves. Though we're plunged into the setting without much background on this Mardi Gras festival, Brown's technique works fine. As the unique details of Mobile's carnival are revealed, the strangeness of its traditions speaks for itself. Brown's camera is a neutral observer but her editing choices definitely reveal she has questions to ask and a perspective to state.
It is estimated that Mobile's Mardi Gras injects more than 200 million dollars into the local economy and we see some of the support industries that account for that number. Dress designers and skilled costumers create regal trains and jewel-encrusted accessories fit for the kings and queens of the festival. The entire month of February appears to be designated party season as various groups hold gala celebrations. Leading up to the big day, there are smaller parades by different organizations, each with its own float. Moreover, Mardi Gras is tied to the tradition of debutante balls and that segment of the community has a lot of money to spend on their rites and traditions.
The film's title refers to one of the many "mystic" societies of Mobile. These are secret groups that practice different rituals among their exclusive membership. They wear colorful, sometimes unsettling, costumes to conceal their identities at formal functions and public appearances. These mystic societies organize themselves around the Mardi Gras celebration—tossing trinkets, beads and Moon Pies to parade spectators—but it's clear to see that membership says a lot about members' social standing. To the outside observer, these groups will appear strange. At times I wondered which group was formed by a bunch of guys who wanted to build a parade float and which group might have ties to guys who like to dress up in white, hooded robes for different reasons?
The picture quality on this DVD is excellent. The image is clean, sharp and detailed. Lighting is consistently good throughout whether the footage is from sit down interviews, dimly lit masked balls or live street parades. The packaging promises a 5.1 surround audio mix but that option was nowhere to be heard on the disc I received for review. However, the stereo soundtrack sounds fine and is more than adequate for the collection of interviews and a few songs. A few scenes where the dialogue is especially accent-heavy are subtitled in English.
The extras make it evident that The Order of Myths is also a very personal film for Brown. Her grandfather was a member of a mystic society and he helped her gain access to these groups' private functions. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds and the director provide an informative audio commentary. Simmonds contributes a few interesting details about what went on behind the cameras but it's mostly Brown speaking about how they managed to gain the trust of their subjects. They also speculate on how the camera's presence may have influenced the behavior of the people they follow. Brown talks about the audience reaction to the film at festivals and the disc also includes the Q&A session from the Mobile premiere where she is joined by some of the cast members to answer questions from the hometown crowd. This segment is assembled from different sources so the video and audio quality varies from passable to poor. Thirteen deleted scenes feature more interviews and footage of other mystic societies going about their rituals. The theatrical trailer rounds out the supplemental materials.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The underlying theme of this documentary is the ongoing racial divide in Mobile that is manifest in its segregated Mardi Gras celebration. Focusing on the then-upcoming carnival, there isn't a lot about the history of Mardi Gras itself. Brown does dig up some history where it's relevant, such as the arrival of the last slave ship and the 1981 lynching of Michael Donald. Investigation into the origins and evolution of this particular incarnation of the celebration is absent.
An insightful look at a side of contemporary America clinging to strange traditions, The Order of Myths is fascinating and hopeful.
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