Separate but equal may have been thrown out of legal usage in 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, but in Margaret Brown's disturbing new documentary The Order of Myths, it seems the tradition is alive and well.
Brown's film follows the events leading up to last year's Mardi Gras festival in Mobile, Ala. Home to the country's first Carnival festival, it is also the seat of an embarrassing display of segregation. Barred from participating in the white festival, the black community decided to begin its own parade. Today, the two coexist, semi-harmoniously, leaving the city's residents to ponder whether the situation is voluntary.
Rarely is a place's bloody history so closely tied to its present. An ancestor from Mobile's wealthy Meaher family illegally helmed the last slave ship to land in America. Many of the city's black residents still live on the family's property. The 2007 queen is a Meaher.
Brown was raised in Mobile, a fact she reveals late in the film. She has found some fertile scenes here, and she lets the material do most of the lifting, avoiding some of the aggressive moralizing that typifies other documentaries today.
Her closeness to the material helps give the film perspective. Refraining from mockery, Brown repeatedly delves into the incongruous elements of life in Mobile. No one wants to admit that there is abject racism going on, but watching these two events transpire simultaneously, it is impossible to avoid constant comparison. And though black participants in Mardi Gras seem content with their festivities, it is hard to ignore the fact that they are not necessarily separate by choice-and that the whites in the film have exclusively black servants.
Throughout the film, participants describe Mobile's long tradition and their attachment to it, but here it seems their long history has been more of a hindrance than a help. Brown depicts the traditions at play, but also the embarrassing realities of mounting separate festivals every year. Her nuanced approach speaks to the dilemma at hand-how do you fix a problem steeped in such a long tradition?