Exploring Race Amid Revelry

Friday, November 7, 2008

What does history mean to you? To Helen Meaher, the young queen of the all-white Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala., history is a sense of pride in one's past, the vague emotional force that impels her to accept the same ceremonial position her grandmother did more than 70 years before.

But to Stefannie Lucas, an elementary school teacher and Helen's counterpart in Mobile's all-black Mardi Gras, history is sharper and much more specific. Recalling that a wealthy member of the Meaher family sailed the last slave ship to enter American waters into Mobile Bay, Lucas matter-of-factly explains the connection between the two Mardi Gras queens: "My people was on her people's ship."

A well-constructed documentary about a surprising remnant of segregation in the new South, Margaret Brown's "The Order of Myths" gracefully explores Mobile's Mardi Gras celebrations and profiles the young people playing at royalty at these ceremonies' hearts.

Amid the flamboyant dresses, 30-pound trains and spectacular hats, Brown's camera captures both casual racism and earnest reconciliation. White revelers defend the traditional racial divide on camera, some of them sporting creepy, blank ceremonial masks -- this in a city that saw a Ku Klux Klan lynching as recently as 1981. Meanwhile, each Mardi Gras queen makes an unprecedented appearance at her counterpart's coronation -- a hopeful step, but one still reminiscent of heads of state visiting foreign lands.

-- Dan Kois

The Order of Myths Unrated, 80 minutes Contains a disturbing historical image of a lynching. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company