The Masks of Racism on Parade in “The Order of Myths”
A delicate investigation of dubious traditions found in the oldest Mardi Gras in the United States.
Images of blackness and whiteness dither beside one another in Margaret Brown’s documentary The Order of Myths, a delicate investigation of stratified traditions in Mobile, Alabama, where the first Mardi Gras was held in the United States. Examining the tense relationship between ethnically exclusive krewes (parade groups), the film views the divide between the community’s Caucasians and African-Americans through the prism of its iconic celebrations. The movie also catalogs common masquerade-wear—bright silks, dark leotards, and face-obscuring plastic masks – that cloak the city’s racial tension under a layer of festive superficiality. The following images elucidate these two conflicting pageantries—one of skin tones, one of costumes — illustrating how Mardi Gras has become, in the words of one disenchanted Mobile resident, “the last stronghold of segregation.”
On the Mardi Gras parade’s premiere float, vibrantly spangled “Folly” beats the semi-blackfaced “Death” out of the parish with pig bladders to initiate the annual bacchanalia. The dualism is anything but casual in this theater of symbols: an avatar of brightness beats a timid, dark figure into submission around the “broken column of the Confederacy,” as one talking head interprets it. It can perhaps even be said to depict a fantasy of domination entertained by whites since the South’s Reconstruction period, when they acknowledged the emancipation of slaves through gritted teeth.
There’s also a hint of existential fear communicated in this racial charade performed on the float. Though “Folly” exudes reassurance in its lightness while laughing at and pummeling its adversary, there’s no denying the inevitable omnipotence of “Death” in its all-consuming darkness. The float suggests a stay of execution for a society, a temporary stunting of Death’s (Black) power through strenuous (though comical) violence.
WATCH THE ORDER OF MYTHS ON FANDOR.
After this image, we’re introduced to the city’s two primary krewes, both of which elect a king and a queen and celebrate with their own parties: the Mobile Carnival Association (MCA) for whites and the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) for blacks. A talking head proclaims that “in Mobile’s Mardi Gras, the blacks and the whites get along fine.”
“Mardi Gras is a mystic society where no one is supposed to know who you are,” says a member of the Mobile Mystics, one of the oldest parading groups in the city. At first he just seems to be fondly accounting for the party as an occasion for guiltless hedonism. But the specter of anonymity also facilitates guiltless racism. The film’s occasional narrators are frighteningly faceless: white men in expressionless, mostly white masks that we can’t help but associate with Klan uniforms. Framed in stoic medium shots and close-ups, these rigid, costumed figures are devoid of humanizing body language.
The man pictured above recounts pieces of Mobile’s history and describes with great detail the planning of the most recent Mardi Gras celebration. When speaking of his black counterparts, his subtitled muffles exude courtesy laced with superciliousness: “It’s a lot of well-educated colored people [in the MAMGA court]. Doctors and lawyers…they good stuff.” He slightly stumbles in his speech, betraying discomfort with his own words. So much the better that he hides behind a veil, one that conceals his individual white-skinned identity while re-presenting it as an abstract apparition of authority.
Another white krewe member remarks that “when you get behind the mask you do some things you wouldn’t do without it on.” It might be more appropriate to say “when you are put behind the mask….” Understanding one’s self in Mobile as either and only white or black markedly influences behavior. The costume ball in the photo above is as vigilantly patrolled as the whites-only establishments in the days of Jim Crow. Only men wear these pale and silver masks, and other men assign these masks to them. (Earlier in the film, members of the krewe are given tutorials on how to wear their white masks appropriately.)
The exposed woman in the photo seems to cling to protectorate central figure, one of the same status quo-enforcing krewes that, from its opulent floats, for years passed over African-American children while tossing candy to the white throng. This shunning affixed a mask of shame to the city’s black population; out of frustration, they inaugurated the first integrated (but mostly black) parading group, the Comrades Ball.
In contrast to the white krewes, the costumes worn by members of the Comrades Ball, seen above, provide a glimpse at truly integrated Mardi Gras aesthetics. Instead of black, white, or grey, we’re offered an inclusive rainbow of purples, golds, and oranges. These masks rarely cover the entire face as they do in the Mystics Ball; skin tones and costume colors seem to collaborate on festive iterations of self rather than simply blanking identity.
But while the look and feel of the Comrades Ball are blithely post-racial, the krewe itself is not: integrated in theory, it has only one white member. So while the figures on this float are more inclusive than the anonymous protectorates seen earlier, they suggest a still unrealized ideal. Few of the pallid sentinels have agreed to cast off their second, affirming layer of whiteness to support not only ethnic integration, but a less intimidating relationship between one’s race and one’s Mardi Gras costume.
The documentary ends with another hopeful vision, a peeling back of costumery that might engender a true intermingling of blackness and whiteness. At the middle ground of the Comrades Ball parade, the royal courts of both ethnicities dance, frolic, and make nice, as in the photo above. The image has a marvelously checkered symmetry to it—the queen’s sable skin draped in a snowy gown, the pale-faced king bedecked in dark elegance.
The couple basks in heavenly brightness, but it’s a hallucination, a departure from Mobile’s reality. The Caucasian king admits in an interview moments later that nothing has changed, nor will it. “So much of it is tied to history and what happened in the past,” he says, “…and what people do with their families.”
The reference to genealogy is particularly telling—he excludes blacks from tradition by conflating their racial other-ness with blood distance. (How can one argue with “family matters”?) Such are the obstacles faced by those in Mobile who dream of an integrated Mardi Gras. The “order of myths” of the film’s title is a historical hierarchy that’s both social and aesthetic, a pageant of prejudice where white and black remain both violently and festively estranged.
WATCH THE ORDER OF MYTHS ON FANDOR: