Independent Lens: The Order of Myths

“My grandma said, I hope y’all don’t get the white court from the black court, ’cause she said, ‘What if it’s going to be bad?’ ‘Cause I think they was filming her over there. She’s talking about how she’s about to cuss or something.” Young and self-assured, the young girl tugs at her dress. “My grandma say she’s going to be mad, if they do it from the blacks and the whites. She said it was more ghetto-like for the black people. ‘Cause she wouldn’t want it like that.”

Appearing in the first few moments of Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths, which airs tonight on Independent Lens, the child’s description sets up the film’s focus on the Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, Alabama. Initiated in 1703, the Mobile parties and parades are gaudy and lavish and loud, much as they are in the more famous versions in New Orleans (which city was not even conceived until 15 years after the first Mobile celebrations). In Mobile, 2007, however, there are two separate sets of festivities, divided by race and unequal when it comes to dollars available and spent. As the film interviews participants in both associations involved — the white Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) and the black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) — it reveals the assumptions and fears that sustain the division.

Some interviewees insist the segregation is just tradition. A white man in a Mardi Gras mask — his interview conducted as he’s surrounded by floats, his buddy, also masked, standing in the blurry background — explains the racial equality in Mobile. “The colored people,” he says, “have their debutantes in the paper. They put on a show, just like the white people do. There’s a lot of wealthy ones too, there’s educated colored people, doctors and lawyers. They good stuff.” Dwain Luce, MCA’s King in 1941 (and Brown’s grandfather), insists the system is premised on choice. “New Orleans took two of the oldest organizations,” he says, “and told ’em they had to integrate, so they quit parading. Nobody’s gonna tell me who come into my house.” In the next breath, he assumes his choice is everyone’s: “Black people have their own parades. They want it that way.” The film reveals the effects of such logic, repeatedly cutting between MCA and MAMGA activities, as well as their different neighborhoods. The MCA folks live on streets with cobblestones and chat at cocktail parties serviced by black, uniformed waiters; MAMGA members live in “Africa Town” (formerly known as Plateau), where the homes are in disrepair and a white family, the Meahers, is the primary landowner, renting to black tenants.

In 2007, the queen selected by MCA is Helen Meaher, whose grandmother was queen in 1935. Appearing repeatedly as she’s fitted for her crown, she’s soft-spoken and polite, pleased to be so honored. Her train designer, Kell√© Thompson, takes pride in his work, showing off its frankly stunning hand-sewn intricacy. “And of course,” he adds, “the beauty part is that Mobile has one queen of Mardi Gras,” as opposed to other cities where he would be designing for multiple queens.

In fact, the other queen of Mardi Gras, grade school teacher Stefannie Lucas, has her own train designer, Pat Richardson (“I like to dazzle,” she smiles, “All my trains dazzle”). Stefannie’s grandmother Fannie confesses to being startled at the news. “When she said she wanted to be the queen, I said, ‘Oh my lord, that’s a lot of money.'” As they sit at Fannie’s dining room table, Stefannie agrees, describing how she had to cut back on spending in order to be able to afford the honor. “It’s about [the worth of] a car, a nice $20, 000,” she smiles.

Stefannie and Fannie note as well the striking connection between this year’s queens’ families. Helen’s great-great grandfather brought Africans on a ship, the Chlotilde, in 1859, after the slave trade was abolished. In order to destroy evidence of his crime, he had his first mate burn the ship after it landed at what would become Mobile, with the cargo on board. The Africans escaped and ran into the woods, eventually establishing their own community. (During the telling of this story, the film cuts to one of the many pre-coronation parties Helen attends, where the camera pans from the ladies in white dresses to a shelf in this fine home, to reveal a set of ceramic figurines, including some “Negro” field hands.) Stefannie concludes, “My people was on her people’s ship.”

The film underscores the irony by showing a gathering of the descendants of the Chlotilde Africans at the Mobile waterfront, where they mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, as well as Alabama’s official apology for slavery — made in 2007. Dr. Cain Hope Felder, Professor of Divinity Howard University, asserts that, despite whites’ fears that any talk of remembering slavery means reparations, he doesn’t want money. “There is no way you could pay, in terms of dollars and cents,” he declares, ancestors’ sacrifices. Instead, he seeks reconciliation, which must begin with discussions and shared experiences. One step toward understanding might be the Conde Explorers, the only integrated Mardi Gras organization in Mobile, established in 2003. While their members are enthusiastic, their numbers are yet small. And in 2007, the film notes, the group has only one white member.

Traditions are surely hard to break, especially when they’re premised on forgetting bad history and supporting mythic self-images. As Max Bruckmann, chosen as Lord of Misrule (Helen’s King) in 2007, puts it, “In the South, people like to dress up and go to a party. We like what our ancestors did and want to keep doing it.” It goes without saying that he omits large portions of “what our ancestors did.” Rather, he speaks in abstractions, selective and rendered in passive constructions: “So much of it is tied to history and what happened in the past.”

It’s the careful, unsensational revelation of such self-delusion that makes The Order of Myths so devastating. As Brittain Youngblood prepares for her debut at the coronation, she provides a running commentary on the rituals she once rejected and is now apparently embracing. As she believes she is self-aware, the scenes become increasingly uncomfortable. Speaking with a member of her mother’s black kitchen staff, a woman she remembers from her childhood, Brittain is eager to detail her recent history, and awkwardly underfoot as the rest of the staff has to get around her. “Sorry,” she says more than once, moving to let the workers by, while avoiding eye contact. “There is a code of behavior, a code of contact,” Brittain says later, though it’s unclear whether she knows she illustrates this code in her own behavior.

Meeting with her black dress designer, Maggie Outsey, Brittain’s position is similarly complicated, especially as the camera frames the women during their conversation. Explaining her decision to be a Lady of the Court, she says, “There’s something about it that appeals to me.” Maggie looks at her pad, taking notes. “I’m getting a greater and greater affinity for my roots,” Brittain continues. Maggie nods, eyes down: “Mm-hmm.” And then Maggie says what Brittain needs to know, but will not. “I think this whole experience… it enlightens you about a lot, a lot of history.”

RATING 8 / 10