The Last Bastion of Jim Crow


The Order of Myths is a film too nuanced to confront lynching directly, and too focused to make any easy statement about racism.

Mardi Gras debuted in the United States in Mobile, Alabama in 1699. The last lynching in Mobile in 1981 was carried out by the Ku Klux Klan against Michael Donald. He was picked by the Klan at random. But that’s just context.

The Order of Myths is a film by Margaret Brown and it’s about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama. This documentary isn’t about Donald or the Klan. It’s too nuanced a film to confront lynching directly, and too focused on Mardi Gras to make any general statement about racism. Rather, it’s about the way Mardi Gras in Mobile remains stuck in “separate but equal,” played out year after year in a town where segregation masquerades as time-honored tradition.

In 2008, a black man can be President of the United States but cannot be the official King of the Mobile Mardi Gras celebration. I could go on. I could critically dissect the film for you. But in the spirit of the documentary–the filmmaker (almost never) sheds light on where she stands, she merely presents scene after bewildering scene–I’ll give you six scenes, six reasons if you will, to go rent it tonight:

1. There’s a shot early on of two disguised white men. They look ready for carnival; they’re dressed in exotic, ill-fitting masks. In the background you can hear tubas. One man, wearing a baseball cap and a silver face piece, does not speak. He’s silent as a bodyguard while his partner explains Mobile’s Mardi Gras. His partner is costumed in what appears to be a cross between a clown suit and a devil’s dress. He wears a helmet spiked with horns. His clothing is shiny, yellow, and adorned with frills on the shoulders and sleeves.

“It’s handed down,” the devil/clown explains. He’s talking about the method of selection of the Mardi Gras King and Queen each year by the largest (and, though it’s kind of unspoken, exclusively white) Mardi Gras organization in Mobile. “I can pick out the names real, real easy when I see ’em. Well I knew her grandpa real well, you know, and so and so like that, you know, so it’s just handed on down. And I can usually pick out pretty much whose gonna be queen. You know,” he goes on, “because of the pedigree, you know, of the background of her.” The camera switches angles. The man continues. “If you didn’t belong to a certain family, you didn’t get in.”

2. At a luncheon for white debutantes, a man who was the Mardi Gras King in Mobile four decades ago stands to make a toast. The room is filled with well-dressed white people. Young men and women at one table and the town elders at another. This is high society. The women in particular look nervous, garbed in conservative but expensive-looking garments. The man making the toast is describing the virtues of white wine over red wine. Red wine, he says, stops him up, makes him red in the face. He thinks it’s important that these young men and women come out cultured, ready for dinner parties and cocktail affairs. So he instructs them on how to properly drink white wine, how to take a sip, then pull air in over the top while the wine’s still in their mouths, how to taste the wine’s airated goodness as it goes down, and how, therefore, to be better prepared for life in Mobile, not to mention the upcoming Mardi Gras balls. He stands there, slurping, ecstatic.

3. A few minutes later, a young woman from a wealthy, proper family sits in front of the camera to try to explain race dynamics in Mobile. White Mobilians, she says, often “love” their one black friend, or more commonly housekeeper, but, beyond that, refuse to get close to that person. People, she says (and by people she means white people), “like to distinguish this one black person they have a relationship with from the black community as a whole.” This was shot two years ago.

4. Helen Meaher has been selected the Mardi Gras Queen by the unofficially white-only Mardi Gras organization. Meanwhile, the black community has a separate but sort of equal anointing organization. It’s not as well-funded–they often have to rent out floats for the parade from their white counterparts–and doesn’t have anywhere near the official coverage and exposure (at the white event, for instance, the mayor, who happens to be black, gives the white King the key to the city. This doesn’t happen at the black event). The crazy thing is, there’s this scene in which the white Queen, Helen Meaher, is getting fitted for a dress interwoven with a scene in which the black Queen, Stephanie Lucas, is also getting fitted elsewhere in the city. Meanwhile, several Mobilians are talking about the history that links these two women. Apparently one of Meaher’s ancestors made a bet with a friend in the mid-1800s–after the slave trade had been abolished–that he could bring a ship of slaves into Mobile. He wasn’t able to pull it off and instead ordered his first mate to run the ship full of Africans aground and set it on fire to destroy the evidence. His first mate did just that. The Africans, however, escaped into the woods–and Lucas is a descendant of one of those on board the ship that belonged to Helen Meaher’s ancestor. “My people were on her people’s ship,” says Lucas with a small laugh.

5. Halfway through the film there’s a scene unfolding at a pre-Mardi Gras meeting of the Mobile Mystics, one of the newest Mardi Gras societies in Mobile. From what the camera shows, the room is full of white people. Someone asks a question about the masks that are being distributed. They don’t fit. How can they be made to fit? Someone else, a chubby man in a maroon button-down work shirt and baseball cap, stands up and, speaking like a teacher to a group of slow children, asks for everyone’s attention. It’s simple, he says. Unless you tie an extra knot in the back like this–he demonstrates–the mask will only fit a mongoloid. That’s what he says: “A mongoloid.”

6. Towards the end, there’s a conversation with an elderly Mobilian. He’s been interviewed throughout the film. He’s stately, he uses a cane, and he looks like he might have been around for the Civil War. The skin hangs off his cheeks and his laughter is the sound of paper crinkling. The film is probing the question of integrating Mobile’s segregated Mardi Gras societies, the ones we’ve seen throughout the film, the ones that throw mostly segregated balls, cocktail parties, and luncheons. As far as talk of integration, he’s having none of it. It’s like who you invite over to your home, says the old man. “Nobody is going to tell me who to invite into my own home,” he says. He pauses. “You know, in New Orleans they told the two oldest Mardi Gras organizations they had to integrate. Well, they just quit parading.” Turns out, the old fellow is the filmmaker’s grandpa. But she saves that twist for the very end. And believe me, the ending to this film is one of the strangest I’ve ever watched. But I won’t write it out here. I would just humbly suggest you see it for yourself.


The Order of Myths website

Jesse Nathan is an editor at McSweeney’s and the managing editor of the Best American Nonrequired Reading. His poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in jubilat, the American Poetry Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Nation. He was born in Berkeley, grew up in Kansas, and lives now in San Francisco. More from this author →