"In Mobile's Mardi Gras, the blacks and the whites get along fine." So states an elderly masked man in the opening minutes of The Order Of Myths, a documentary about the coastal Alabama city's 300-year-old Carnival celebrations, and how they reflect the state of race relations in the 21st-century South. The film's title comes from the name of an exclusive Mobile social club that marches in the Mardi Gras parade and holds debutante balls in full masquerade. But the title is also meant to refer to the illusions people hold. Mobile's demographics run 48 percent white and 48 percent black, and for centuries, the city's two halves have administered their Carnivals through separate councils, with separate courts and separate kings and queens. Yet a member of one of Mobile's secret white societies proudly boasts that unlike in New Orleans, "there's only one queen in Mobile."
As a sort of once-over-lightly tour of Mobile and its yearly hoopla, The Order Of Myths is entertaining and provocative. Director Margaret Brown (a hometown girl of sorts) presents Mobile as a city of contradictions, which had a lynching as recently as 1981, yet is currently presided over by a black mayor. It's a city so steeped in history that people can remember who wore what to Carnival 50 years ago, as well as whose family owned whose 100 years before that. It would be a mistake to think that Brown's series of brief interviews—often punctuated by well-meaning but racist comments—paints anything like a full picture of what Mobile is really like. Yet the movie does cover a lot of ground in a short time, noting the rise of new social organizations in Mobile that are less exclusive (albeit still segregated), and observing the small steps made toward cooperation between the races on Mardi Gras planning, even though those steps come with uncomfortable amounts of condescension and deference.
In the end, Brown chooses to accentuate the positive, but she never pretends that progress will be as simple as a court order. The traditions of Carnival and Mobile run deep, and no one seems eager to change them just for the sake of some idealized vision of social justice. So The Order Of Myths' central question remains tantalizingly unanswered: When a society respects its old-growth trees so much that they let the roots crack the sidewalks, are they being noble or ignorant?