The country’s oldest Mardi Gras celebration isn’t in New Orleans. It’s in Mobile, Alabama, and there’s a rich and fascinating history around it.
Dir. Margaret Brown, 2008, 79 min
It’s kind of a shame what pop culture has done to Mardi Gras. A tradition that technically dates back over a thousand years has turned into a cheap bit of opportunism for drunk college kids. But there’s so much more to Mardi Gras than that, and The Order of Myths looks at how tightly local culture is entwined with the celebration.
Although the Carnival is mostly associated with New Orleans, the first Mardi Gras was held in 1703, fifteen years before that city’s founded. The birthplace of the American Mardi Gras is Mobile, Alabama. Besides the customary parades, the city’s traditions include masked balls and parties thrown by various mystic societies. Oh, and all the pomp is strictly racially segregated.
That last bit might have caused you a brief about-face, but it’s true. There are white and black parades and parties in Mobile. There are a white king and queen of Mardi Gras and a black king and queen of Mardi Gras. It’s a separation not enforced by any law or regulation, but maintained nonetheless by the people of all colors.
Racial issues are in Mobile’s bones. It was the last city in American history to accept a slave ship (the prisoners of said ship would go on to form the community of Africatown) and one of the last with recorded public lynchings. It makes a sad sort of sense. Can we really expect progress to come so quickly, and overtake hundreds of years worth of ingrained prejudice?
But the documentary isn’t really about the racial divide in the Mardi Gras celebration; that’s more of a background element, one more factor in the diverse mix that composites this history. This is a celebratory film about a celebration, and it shoots that mood into you. How can you listen to toe-tappin’ southern jazz tunes and not feel your spirits rise? The colors, the elaborate costumes and parade floats, the sheer public ecstasy all collide like energized atoms in a blissful rush of chaos.
And in the midst of that chaos, a wonderful thing happens. You see the white and black mix and match freely, all social barriers forgotten. Good times make people forget what’s supposed to be “right” and give in to what’s right. Even though there is still enough resistance to prevent the separate Mardi Gras factions from integrating, you can’t leave this film feeling downcast about the future in Mobile. The impression it leaves is that they’ll be just fine.
Director Margaret Brown is known for her music documentaries, and while I haven’t seen anything else by her, from this movie, it’s easy to see why. The doc doesn’t quite focus enough on the music that I’d consider it a music-focused film, but that’s an active part of it, and the parade and band scenes crackle with vitality. Outside the festivities, she takes a very simple, quiet approach. She knows how to find the grace in little moments, like an ancient woman telling her designer to go pull up a chair and stop crouching over a dress. These kinds of touches sketch out this world, so that you can see all the lovely details in it.
The Order of Myths has a title with a triple meaning. Literally, it refers to the oldest mystic society in Mobile. Figuratively, it gets at the emblem of the Order, acted out on their float every year: Folly chasing Death around a broken pillar, with Folly eventually defeating Death. It’s a symbol of the Civil War, and within the context of the film hearkens to the root of Mobile’s color issue. Even more figuratively, it reminds of how all rejoicing defeats Death, if only for a moment. And even more more figuratively, the title itself strikes at how our cultural understanding of the past is in constant flux. In that view, maybe it’s really just a perfectly natural development that drunk college students take over Mardi Gras. Until then, I think I’ll appreciate the more traditional side.