'Prom Night in Mississippi' crosses the racial line

by Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

5 February 2010


Here’s a film to warm your winter-weary heart.

The documentary “Prom Night in Mississippi” (HBO aired it in July) is a moving look at youth, race and plain old human decency.

When actor Morgan Freeman moved back to his childhood hometown of Charleston, Miss., he was shocked to find that almost 40 years after the Supreme Court ruling against segregated public education, students at the local high school held racially segregated senior proms.

Declaring that “Tradition’s one thing; idiocy’s another,” Freeman offered to finance the 2008 senior prom, provided it was integrated.

Freeman more or less disappears for most of Paul Saltzman’s film; having set things in motion, he left town for acting jobs.

“Prom Night” follows students, school administrators and parents over several months as they near the big event. No student objected during a senior class discussion of Freeman’s proposal, but it becomes clear that race remains a big issue.

White and black students share classrooms, play on the same teams and ride the same buses. But for many their out-of-school social lives are dictated by the racism still embraced by the adults around them.

Some white students say they won’t attend,many because their parents won’t let them. In fact, a group of parents — they refuse to be interviewed by Saltzman — announce yet another whites-only prom.

Saltzman gave several students mini-cams so they could create their own video diaries, and it’s fascinating to see what they reveal when they’re by themselves. One young man, the film’s most erudite interview subject, appears on camera with his features blurred, lest his racist parents take umbrage at his comments.

It’s to Saltzman’s credit that he doesn’t pigeonhole his adult subjects as rednecks. One white father — whose daughter has been seeing a black student for years (although they’ve never gone out on a date, as that would be too public) — talks about his own ingrained objections to racial mixing. But the man is so sincerely devoted to his child’s well-being that you can’t call him a bad guy. As much as anyone else, he’s a victim of his environment.

“Prom Night in Mississippi” ends on an astonishingly upbeat note as the youngsters enjoy their big night, dancing to bands playing everything from rap to country to alternative (it’s good to have a movie star footing the bill). Race is left at the gymnasium door.

Their excitement, innocence (there’s not another word for it) and joy at sharing this event with their fellow students is infectious. Watching this doc will take you back to your own prom ... and give you hope for the future.

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