Filmmaker Margaret Brown, a Mobile, Ala., native, burrows into the inherited racialization that swirls around her hometown’s Mardi Gras celebrations. Yet the upshot is that most of the social actors, black and white, in this community drama don’t complain much.
Brown documented Mobile’s 2007 Mardi Gras, from costume design to ball invitations to the day itself. Central to the project, which played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is the fact that both the black and white communities elect their own king and queen for Mardi Gras, and each community organizes and celebrates along racial lines.
The whites have the Mobile Carnival Association, and the blacks have the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. One comes away thinking most of Mobile is just fine with that.
Brown captures much of the action surrounding Mardi Gras, but also employs interviews and archival photographs. “Myths” begins with an elderly white Mobilian named Dwain Luce talking about a particular Mardi Gras float and its traveling performance. Brown shows it, too, the image tinted red by flames in the frame as one costumed character—representing Death—is chased around a broken column by another costumed character—representing Folly. Folly, Luce explains, must chase Death away so the real party can begin. It’s the beginning of a beautifully shot and fairly edited documentary.
We obviously don’t know what Brown cut, but what remains shows the complexity of relationships among the descendants of slaves and slave-owners, who come off as polite more than anything. If you saw “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and thought it too weird to have any basis in fact, “Myths” should remove that doubt.
Yes, good ol’ boys sit and listen to the best way to wear a mask. High-society types sit through wine tastings that are hilarious in their unfussiness. It does require a literal harness to wear the kind of train required for Mardi Gras ceremonies. School kids do wax rhapsodic about Moon Pies. And yes, as recently as 1981 a 19-year-old black man was lynched in Mobile.
In casting light on the racial division of Mardi Gras events, Brown must necessarily take us inside the “mystic societies” that host parties, build floats and parade through the streets. The oldest mystic society in Mobile is called the Strikers, which dates back to 1842. Part of the tension in “Myths” evolves not only from race, but also from class, as other societies have arisen to give more Mobilians access to the traditions previously reserved for old, wealthy families.
So the Mobile Mystics were founded in 1993 to admit “anyone,” though everyone seems to be white. Having said that, Brown’s film doesn’t portray, at least overtly, the society as racist. In fact, they come off as good guys who take Mardi Gras to nursing homes and centers for the disabled. Brown also features the Conde Explorers, another society founded in 2003 intentionally as an integrated group. In 2007, all the Explorers, save one, were black.
Brown follows and conducts interviews with the communities’ respective queens and kings. MCA elects Helen Meaher and Max Bruckmann; MAMGA elects Steffanie Lucas and Joseph Roberson. Brown traces Meaher’s family back to slave importation and an infamous moment involving a schooner full of slaves in 1859.
Brown delivers almost a journalistic record, eschewing editing that betrays judgment and opting instead to paint a picture at once easy to comprehend yet baffling in its complexity. It’s a complexity that builds with each generation and is, in this case, negotiated each year amid human celebration.
So much of the celebration pivots around the mask, and the playfulness of anonymity can’t be overlooked. Neither can its apparent limits with regard to race. For all the rule-bending and time-out-of-time activity brought on by Mardi Gras, both sides consider it monumental when MCA and MAMGA send envoys to each other’s parties and dance for a while together.
If the Mobile Mardi Gras really were topsy-turvy, racial division would be the first thing up-ended. But it’s not, so Folly must chase on.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: Not rated.
Reviewer’s Note: Nothing objectionable.
Director: Margaret Brown
Cast: Steffanie Lucas; Joseph Roberson; Helen Meaher; Max Bruckmann; Brittain Youngblood.
Related: DVD: “Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism”