The Order of Myths

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Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- In "The Order of Myths," filmmaker Margaret Brown returns to her hometown of Mobile, Ala., to see how the city has progressed since her youth. The answer is surprisingly little as she looks at the community through its major social event of the year: the Mardi Gras. Exotic and thoughtful, film is entertaining enough to capture a modest theatrical audience before enjoying a healthy run on cable outlets.

In this vision of the South, separate but equal is not only alive and well, it is the dominant mode of interaction. The film gets under your skin with its celebratory colors and vibrant music, and then creeps you out with its conclusions, which is probably Brown's intention, but she allows the events to speak for themselves.

The film's title refers to the oldest of a group of all-white secret fraternal societies that plan parades and parties to celebrate the holiday. Members speak to the camera only with their masks on as identities cannot be revealed. One masked man says blacks and whites get along fine in the city, but one suspects this is the case only as long as everyone knows their place.

The Mobile Mardi Gras, started in 1703, is the oldest in the country. Until 1938, blacks participated in the celebration only as dancers and torchbearers accompanying white floats. Then with the founding of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA), the blacks residents created their own events to go along with the white celebration staged by the Mobil Carnival Association (MCA).

Chronicling the 2007 Mardi Gras, Brown cuts back and forth between the two celebrations as if they were running on separate, parallel tracks, crossing only occasionally. To tell her story she follows five key participants: the black king and queen; the white queen; a white debutante who claims to be liberal but is still a member of the white court; and a black activist who tells it like it is.

The points of intersection between the two worlds are seen where blacks work for wealthy white families, either as waiters for exclusive events or beloved nanny's who helped raise the children. As an insider, Brown is allowed unprecedented access, but even she is cautious not to jeopardize her welcome by asking the hard questions. Instead, she observes and let's viewers draw their own conclusions.

Polemics is not her point. She shows the pomp and circumstance of the events: the elaborate embroidery of the costumes, the balls, the coronation, and the actual parades. It is in the playing out of the traditions that Brown examines and questions the ingrained social fabric of her city. Her mother was a Mardi Gras queen in 1996 and her grandfather is still active in a mystic society, so Brown has ambivalent feelings about the events and how they are conducted.

Representing the Meaher family, one of the oldest and wealthiest in Mobile, is Helen Meaher, this year's queen. In tracing her family's history, the film shockingly reveals that her ancestor was responsible for bringing the last slave ship into this county in Mobile harbor, more than 50 years after the U.S. had outlawed the slave trade. It's a heritage that people don't speak of directly, but it is the kind of thing that hovers beneath the surface and defines all that we see.

Moving from shots of shacks that sell fried oxtails in the black neighborhood to the splendor of the white-gloved parties on the other side of town, Brown and her cinematographers Michael Simmonds and Lee Daniel always seem to have the camera in the right spot. And editors Michael Taylor, Geoffrey Richman and Brown have stitched the material together to make a lively and revealing portrait of life in the New South.

THE ORDER OF MYTHS
A NetPoint Prods. presentation in association with Lucky Hat Entertainment
Credits:
Director: Margaret Brown
Producers: Margaret Brow, Sara Alize Cross
Executive producer: Christine Mattsson
Director of cinematography: Michael Simmonds, Lee Daniel
Editors: Michael Taylor, Geoffrey Richman, Margaret Brown
Running time -- 80 minutes
No MPAA rating
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