It’s easy to mistake hospitality for genuine kindness. You arrive at someone’s home, they offer you refreshments, genteel conversation, and an invitation to return whenever you’d like. Often, these cordialities are a well-intentioned mask intended to make everyone feel comfortable. But disguises, particularly in the American South, aren’t always a manifestation of goodwill. In The Order of Myths director Margaret Brown aims to unveil the hidden language of Mobile, Alabama’s Mardi Gras traditions and manages to do so from a gentle, yet assertive perspective.
Bourbon Street, beads, and boobs – what most partygoers consider the triumvirate of Mardi Gras. But since 1703, Mobile, Alabama has been host to the oldest Mardi Gras celebration in America. There are parades with floats, moon pies, and drunken debauchery, but the fest also coincides with a more formal affair: local ladies don elaborate gowns and show-off their decorum at debutante balls. That’s plural because in Mobile, Mardi Gras is one of the last strongholds of racial segregation. There are two Mardi Gras kings and queens, two royal courts, two coronation ceremonies, and two parades. Private “mystic societies” organized the festivities and the members of the all-white groups do their best to convince the viewer that everybody’s happier with the status quo. Among the various arguments they use to defend the segregated celebration is a desire to maintain their historical traditions, which happen to divide along racial lines. What they don’t mention is why.
But Margaret Brown does. We see the Mobile Carnival Association (the all-white organization) choose Helen Meaher as their queen because of her family’s longstanding position in the community. Then Stefannie Lucas, the queen of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (the all-black organization), sits with her grandparents recounting how Meaher’s ancestor brought over her own ancestors on the last slave ship to arrive in the U.S. She says, “My people was on her people’s ship,” and Brown leaves the camera on Lucas just long enough to capture an awkward smile and a slight nod, the only possible punctuation to the irony.
Moments like this, where the present crashes into the past in a visceral, human way, are too many to describe. But perhaps the most telling occurs when Lucas and her king, Joseph Roberson, show up at the MCA’s coronation ceremony. They may or may not have been invited, but they certainly weren’t expected. In true Southern form, MCA chairman David Cooper welcomes them and invites them to greet Queen Helen and her king, Max Bruckmann. Lucas and Roberson, who have to walk in the glaring heat of a spotlight to reach their royal counterparts, handle the situation with grace, but their unease is palpable. And while Lucas and Roberson mingle and chat with some of the guests, there are others who give only an obligatory smile. A subtext roils beneath the formality, and Brown’s camera sets it loose.
In fact, The Order of Myths is successful because of the way in which it mimics the behavior of its subjects. Nothing is stated outright, but the message comes across. When the Mayor of Mobile appears on screen, his title comes up in white lettering. A few seconds later, the words “The first African-American” are added. It’s clear that Brown finds the situation disturbing, but it is a quiet condemnation. And though she has a personal stake in the game, we don’t learn that until the last moments of the film.
One thing Mobile’s celebration has in common with New Orleans’ is the festive mask. The MCA chairman, David Cooper, explains that the appeal of a mystic society is that no one really knows who anyone else is. But of course that’s not true. The oldest societies, like The Order of Myths, select members based on status, pedigree, and race (and they make sure to tell you they can invite whoever they’d like “into their home”). An elderly, former Mardi Gras court member, Dwain Luce, admits the real fun of wearing the masks: “From a practical standpoint, when you get behind that mask, you do some things, sometimes, you wouldn’t do with it off.” During Mardi Gras, that may mean some naughty groping, but for a period of America’s past, masks allowed people to commit heinous and despicable crimes without consequence. The Order of Myths reminds viewers that what may seem harmless on the surface can hide a deep and treacherous divide.