In The Order of Myths, just as in Manderlay, the legacy of slavery lingers on far past its historical moment. But whereas Lars von Trier’s anachronistic plantation exists in a highly fantastical 1930s America, the Jim Crow practices on display in Margaret Brown’s engaging new documentary exist in a very real (and contemporary) Mobile, Alabama. Home to the nation’s first Mardi Gras celebration, Mobile carries on the tradition (a loaded word in this film) with a lavish annual celebration that mobilizes the entire city for a weekend of pageantry and racial segregation. Both the white and black communities organize separate balls and parades and elect their own king, queen and royal court, and while most of Brown’s interviewees—particularly the white subjects—seem to agree that both sides prefer it this way, it soon becomes clear that this is no mere de facto segregation but officially enforced policy, even if there’s a little wiggle room for interracial participation.
Brown’s subjects are always insisting on the importance of the past, of getting in touch with their “roots” (evoked by the filmmaker in a series of lyrical shots of tree branches, her one imagistic flourish), but this clearly means different things to different people, depending on which side of the racial divide they fall on. What it means for most of the white participants is a selective amnesia in which the glorious lineages of the Old Southern families (class plays nearly as big a role here as race) are extolled while that other Southern tradition is conveniently ignored. But in the 2007 ceremony, whose documentation forms the core of Brown’s film, the question of historical legacy takes on a new meaning when we learn that the ancestors of the African-American queen were brought over on a slave ship by an ancestor of the white queen, 50 years after the official closing of the slave trade—a piece of information comfortably ignored by the city’s white citizens. But such is the problem of invoking history: The segregationists can make selective use of the historical record to justify their actions, but there may always be people with a fuller understanding of past events to fill in the gaps.
In Manderlay, the bewildered slaves reject the efforts of their white “liberator” to release them into an uncertain freedom. While several of the black subjects in Order of Myths take tentative steps toward effecting a racial integration, most seem similarly content to accept the status quo or, at least, to recognize the necessity of a more gradual approach, while most of the white citizens see no need for any change at all. Easy enough for the cosmopolitan viewer to feel comfortably superior to Brown’s misguided subjects (of both races) who are willing to accept such an embarrassing state of affairs, but the filmmaker does a good job of suggesting just how strong a pull tradition continues to exert on Southern culture and how that culture’s unquestioned customs—having taken on the order of myths—tend to close off any discussion of potential change. So when the African-American king and queen attend the coronation ceremony of their white counterparts and are moved to tears by the warm reception they receive, it would be easy enough to scoff at the naïve pleasure they take in a vaguely condescending recognition, but when we take into account the cultural framework that makes their very attendance into something of a radical gesture, it becomes clear that the situation is fraught with unseen complexities that makes nonsense of such a hastily registered response. If, despite a rather too-abrupt ending and a somewhat indifferent visual conception, Brown’s film can be termed a success, its principal achievement is in giving us some measure of these complexities.