Mobile, Alabama is a land of contrasts, as Bart Simpson might say. They were the first city in the United States to hold a Mardi Gras (in 1703, 15 years before the creation of New Orleans), on one hand. On the other, the last ship bearing slaves from Africa (the Clothilde) docked in Mobile in 1859, well after the slave trade had been outlawed. And in an interesting though perhaps not wholly unexpected twist of fate, two young women – one descended from the white plantation owner who brought the ship back, one descended from the slaves on the boat who eventually settled the “Africa Town” area around Mobile – are both elected queen of their respective Mardi Gras organizations in 2007.

“The Order of Myths” looks at these organizations (the all-white Mobile Carnival Association, the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association), the various “mystic societies” involved in Mardi Gras, the traditions and customs surrounding the celebration. Director Margaret Brown also shows us how the element of race is so critical to the carrying out of the festivities. Many of those affiliated with the MCA insist the black organizations don’t want to be integrated, and that there are no race problems in Mobile (one man makes all of his assertions behind a garish carnival mask). One only has to watch for a few minutes to realize this isn’t quite the case, and to Brown’s credit, she doesn’t try to cram anything down our throats, preferring to let things like the expressions on an older black woman’s face, or the eerie way in which the masks worn by the MCA men at their ball evoke Ku Klux Klan hoods, or the shots of black kids at the parade and the conspicuous way in which none of the white people will throw them beads or Moon Pies.*

Brown also doesn’t try to manufacture some pie-in-the-sky resolution, where blacks and whites clasp hands and start singing around the Whoville Christmas tree. But she does show us how healing the past starts with a single gesture, and may even be possible in a city where a black man was lynched as recently as 1981. “The Order of Myths” is smartly edited, utterly engrossing, and as intelligent an examination of American race relations as I’ve seen.

* Being a Southerner, I was aware of the existence of Moon Pies. Not being from the Deep South, I had no idea kids actually write essays about them in school.

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