Order of Myths captures Mardi Gras in black and white

The Order of Myths presents Mobile, Ala.'s Mardi Gras as the country's first such celebration, predating New Orleans', and as one of the South's last bastions of segregation. Mobile's white and African-American communities each embrace the pomp, pageantry and parades of Mardi Gras, and while their festivities may be unequal, they're definitely separate.

Director Margaret Brown, a white native of Mobile, returns to her hometown to chronicle the preparations for the 2007 Mardi Gras, particularly the hoopla and costuming surrounding the queens of the respective "royal courts." Willowy Helen Meaher hits the country club circuit as the queen of the white organization, while schoolteacher Steffanie Lucas serves as her African-American counterpart of sorts. The two have more connections than they or the audience realize. Brown's interviewees allege that the well-established Meaher family hired a slave ship that ran in the Mobile area in 1859, and that some of the unwilling passengers were distant relatives of Lucas. "My people was on her people's ship," Lucas says.

At times, The Order of Myths simply sits back and considers Mardi Gras' antiquated rituals, from the hand-embroidered stitching of endless trains to the parade-float symbolism to the aristocratic white parties with the African-American "help" in formal wear. Mobile's racial history comes across as raw and complex even by the standards of most Southern cities. It had a lynching as recently as 1981, but an African-American mayor at the time of the documentary. Frequently Brown's white interviewees extol the importance of tradition, like the sinister masks men wear at formal dances, but they seem disinclined to reflect very closely on Southern history's uglier sides.

The tensions threaten to come to a head when Lucas and her "king," Joseph Roberson, unexpectedly arrive at the fancy-schmancy coronation ball of Meaher and rest of the white court. In a stranger-than-fiction turn of events, things don't transpire quite the way the audience expects. As Mobile's Mardi Gras season plays out, The Order of Myths ends on a note of potential reconciliation. It's as if the two separate parades are heading, by inches, toward an intersection.