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Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi

Movie
Studio(s): 
Starring: 
Director(s): 
Genre: 
On DVD: 
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Grade:
A-
Running Time: 
90 minutes

Proms are nights filled with dancing, bad food, limo rides, and yards of tulle.  They’re generally not battles in the war on racism, at least not anymore, unless you live in Charleston, Mississippi. In 1997, Freeman told the school board of his home town that he would pay for the high school prom so long as it was integrated.  The school board turned him down, opting to hold the usual separate proms for white students and black students.  Ten years later, Morgan Freeman made the same offer and was told it would be accepted if the senior class agreed.  Prom Night in Mississippi tells the story of the journey to Charleston’s first integrated prom in spring of 2008, gathering insights on the state of race relations along the way and culminating in footage of that very successful and happy night.  Watching it, I went from disbelief to a mixture of anger, frustration, and sadness and finally to joyous hope. 
 

Writer/Director Paul Saltzman does an excellent job showing the excitement of most students and the resistance of some parents and a few students to the idea of an integrated prom.  He takes us to Prom Committee meeting, dress shops, and, of course, to the prom itself, but the heart of Prom Night in Mississippi is a series of interviews with students, parents, and school staff.  The vast majority of students in this 70% African American high school are eager for better race relations, but they are often trapped by their parents’ views.  Saltzman develops an excellent rapport with a small but diverse group and gets raw, honest, sometimes halting answers.  It’s especially poignant when the students express their feelings of friendship for students of a different race but are unable to give an answer to the question of why they don’t date outside their race or why they haven’t spent any time at the home of someone of a different race.
 

Some of the parents organize and throw a whites only prom, leading to much angst for some students who want to go and have fun with their friends while making their parents happy, but who also don’t want to hurt their black friends or appear racist.  Frustratingly, the parents refuse to appear on camera, going so far as to hire an attorney to protect their right not to be seen as racist.  After all, they’re just having a prom for students who “happen to be white.”  The blurred figure of one white student who remains disguised so his parents won’t disown him speaks eloquently and regretfully of the racist attitudes held by the older generations, and we do hear from some parents who insist they aren’t racist, but…It’s always that but that kills me, and here the buts are as sad and maddening as you would expect. 
 

Morgan Freeman appears in brief snippets throughout the film, offering his own insights, and his lack of screen time is particularly effective because Prom Night in Mississippi is about the kids, not him.  He just wanted to help change what he called “the stupidest thing he had ever heard of.”  Freeman does attack one of the often unspoken problems head on: the still rampant fear of black males spending time with white females because sex might occur.  The one interracial couple exemplifies this.  They don’t hold hands in public, and the white girl’s father makes his opposition more than clear, though he insists he “didn’t whup her” for it and actually comes across as conflicted and loving, but stuck in his long-held fears of integration.  My favorite, weepiest, moment of the film came during the prom’s Senior Walk when the couple is introduced to rousing cheers from the entire student body.
 

Prom Night in Mississippi isn’t a hard-hitting expose on racism, and it doesn’t need to be.  It tells the story of kids who want to be, and often are, free from the racist views that trap their parents.  It is also a charming story about kids who want to dress up and have fun with their friends—all of their friends.  It works wonderfully on both levels.
 

For special features, there are some deleted and extended scenes that give a little more insight, a decent biography of Saltzman, a theatrical trailer, and a fascinating “Conversation with the Director and Producer” featurette.  The film looks fabulous for a documentary with excellent cinematography and video/audio quality.  Prom Night in Mississippi is a film festival award-winning film that deserves your attention, both as a well-made documentary and as a feel-good story about some great kids trying to change their corner of the world just by dancing together.
 

Review by Michelle St. James