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MOVIE REVIEW

A city's two-party system

Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala., means long-held traditions -- such as segregated festivities.

August 08, 2008|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

Race and opulently hand-sewn gowns matter in "The Order of Myths," filmmaker Margaret Brown's brilliantly captivating examination of Mobile, Ala.'s, entrenched tradition of racially segregated Mardi Gras celebrations. From the dresses to the parties to the parades to the master-planned coronations of a new king and queen, Brown shows the black and white communities erecting their respective carnivals with unbridled enthusiasm.

But what also becomes clear is an ever-nagging acknowledgment that a blighted, color-defined past inevitably connects them. It is only one of the movie's bracing disclosures that both Mardi Gras queens can trace their ancestors to the city infamy of its building and harboring the last slave ship to reach American shores, the Clothilde in 1860.

Though Brown is herself a born Mobilian -- with a connection to the chronicled events that she wisely holds back revealing till the end -- she shrewdly doesn't burden her film with an insider's biased narration. Rather, she lets the modest totality of her superbly captured scenes, images and glimpses of personality, and some sly, humanistic editing, make her points about history's own strained parade toward the reality that is today's racially complex South. Towering city trees, revered by one group as representative of strong roots, can for the other recall the horrors of lynching. The socially conscious debutante who sits for an interview practically snuggled next to the black nanny who raised her, while mom perches on a chair across from her. The mostly white mystic parade societies who cherish a party mask for the anonymity allowing "things you wouldn't do without it on," as one participant says wryly. And the mostly black figures serving at the all-white parties and luncheons.

"The Order of Myths" is an invaluable portrait of us-and-them America, a smart, generous, poignant, quietly disturbing movie about secrecy and hospitality, and how easy it is for a tradition of separateness to flourish when the stakes are as deceptively frivolous as an eye-popping yearly party.

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"The Order of Myths." Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. At Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223.

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