“I know that there’s a time and there’s a place for change, and I’m not trying to shun that. But I don’t think anything needs to be forced on it right now. It’s worked well for years, for a hundred years…. In my opinion, nothing needs to change.
— Max Bruckmann, Mobile Carnival Association Mardi Gras King
The first Mardi Gras in America was held in Mobile, Alabama in 1703. Three hundred and five years later, the city’s annual Carnival is split down the middle, with separate but not quite equal celebrations—one for the white folks and one for the black folks.
In THE ORDER OF MYTHS, filmmaker Margaret Brown, herself a daughter of Mobile royalty (her mother was a Mardi Gras queen), examines the rituals and traditions that both divide and link the two events and their participants.
Brown is granted unprecedented access to the preparations and celebrations as she unmasks the exotic world of secret mystic societies, centuries-old customs and pageantry that surround both Mardi Gras traditions.
The festivity begins as winter comes to a close and Fat Tuesday, the literal translation of Mardi Gras, nears. The film begins as Mobile is abuzz with the imminent announcement of the two new Mardi Gras royal courts.
One set of monarchs, along with their attendant knights and ladies, is selected by the all-white Mobile Carnival Association (MCA), which marries the announcement of the queen to the city’s social event of the season: the coming-out party for the daughters of Mobile’s leading citizens. The MCA queen, a well-pedigreed debutante, will reign opposite King Felix III, who is also pulled from the ranks of Mobile’s aristocracy.
The second royal court is chosen by the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA). This year, the 2007 Mardi Gras king and queen are both elementary school teachers at Maryvale Elementary, a Mobile-area school with an 80 percent poverty rate.
The film captures the excitement and expectations of onlookers as the queens are named. But the narrative takes an unexpected twist when it is revealed that this year’s white Mardi Gras queen, debutante Helen Meaher, is the direct descendent of an outlaw who ran the last slave ship to enter the United States, more than 50 years after a federal ban abolished the slave trade. His ship, the Clothilde, contained unforeseen cargo—the ancestor of the film’s black Mobile Mardi Gras Queen of 2007, Stefannie Lucas. Her forebears fled into the woods outside of Mobile, known as Africatown, rather than be burned alive when the Clothilde ran aground.
THE ORDER OF MYTHS traces the parallel routes taken by the competing organizations, with the opulence and anticipation of Mardi Gras—an event that brings a quarter of a billion dollars to the Mobile economy—eclipsing any interracial discord that might cloud the excitement. Buried in the preparations for jewel-studded crowns, voluminous, hand-sewn gowns and trains and surreal masks and enormous paper maché floats, is the knowledge that as recently as 1981, a black youth was lynched in Mobile.
But few are willing to broach the subject of segregation or bring a dark cloud to the other-worldly air that permeates Mobile at this time of year. Men speak honestly, but only from behind masks; discussion of race relations is blurred by innuendo or couched in terms of time-honored tradition.
“Many of our white brothers and sisters…think we talk about reparations, that we are going to hand them a bill. That they are going to have to give us some money. We don’t want any money! It’s not about money for the sacrifices….. It’s about the other kind of currency—a change of the heart, not the change of the pocket.”
These strangely akin worlds that exist in Mobile, Alabama are off limits to criticism, except to the unbiased eye of a camera’s lens—or to Dora Finley, a local activist and historian who explains that Mobile’s Mardi Gras is its “last stronghold of segregation.” But instead of being joined by other voices, silence reigns as mightily as tradition in Mobile. And, like foreign dignitaries who will soon return to their native lands, the MCA and MAMGA kings and queens cross the color-line only briefly to visit each other’s events.
Letting the subject matter unfold before the viewer without comment, the film peels back the layers of Mobile’s history and heritage, pageantry and pride to reveal a tangled web of violence, power dynamics and, in an ironic twist, the hidden relationship between the families of the black and white queens.
Mobile Area Mardi Gras (MAMGA) Queen of 2007 Stefannie Lucas; MAGMA King of 2007 Joseph Roberson; Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) Queen Helen Meaher; debutante Brittain Youngblood and Mobile historian Dora Finley all traveled with filmmaker Margaret Brown to the Sundance Film Festival to present the film. Helen, Stefannie, Joseph and Helen went with the film to Edinburgh and Helen presented the film at the New Orleans Film Festival. Brittain, Dora, Joseph, Stefannie and filmmaker Margaret Brown presented THE ORDER OF MYTHS when it premiered in Mobile to a sold-out and racially mixed screening of 2,000 Mobilians. The Q&A from that evening is included on the DVD.
Stefannie and Joseph are teaching at Maryvale Elementary School and finishing up graduate degrees. Dora is working on an African-American Heritage Trail in Mobile, which places historic markers at important African-American sites, and Brittain is working in real estate in New York City.