[20 July 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Until, you know, the parents break the cycle to the children, the children gonna pass it on to their children.
“There’s some hardheaded people in this town,” reports “Billie Joe.” Speaking from Charleston, Mississippi, population 2100, Billie Joe goes on, “This is a place of judgment. “You’re judged every day, by every move you make, by the people you talk to. It’s worse when it comes to skin color, how bad you’re judged.”
As if to emphasize just how “bad” such judgment can be, Billie Joe appears in Prom Night in Mississippi in shadow, obscuring his identity, save for the facts that he’s white and a senior at the high school. The judgment he’s talking about has everything to do with race, and more specifically, racism. Every year, after spending their school careers in classes together, seniors attend segregated proms—one white and one black. The tradition has been in place since 1970, when Charleston first allowed black students to attend white schools (that would be 16 years after the Supreme Court decision that supposedly desegregated schools in the U.S.).
Prom Night in Mississippi documents the challenge to that tradition by students, with the help of Morgan Freeman. In 2008, the actor and Charleston native offers to pay for the prom—if it’s integrated. As Paul Saltzman’s film reveals, his first version of the offer, in 1997, was rejected: this time, he comes with a camera crew. Driving into town, Freeman explains, “I’m offering the opportunity to do it to break this logjam of inaction that persists, prevails among young people in this town, in this little bitty burg.” With the blessing of principal Bucky Smith (“I think this is gonna greatly benefit our kids”), Freeman meets with a group of students to invite them to plan the event. Standing before them in the auditorium, he evaluates: “So you’re all in this together, you’re all one on this idea.” The camera shows nodding heads and shy smiles. With that—and the distribution of diary cameras to selected students—Freeman’s back in his car, describing his hope that the new generation can fight their parents’ expectations. “We’ll see what happens,” he says.
What happens is messy, inspiring, and to an extent, predictable. Students with diary cameras voice their support of the integrated prom, while students and parents who resist the change remain mostly off camera. When this other group decides to go forward with a white-only prom, they send messages to the filmmakers via a lawyer, Jeff Padget. They don’t want Saltzman’s crew “anywhere around” their own planning meetings, Padget says, because they believe they will be misrepresented. He asserts their right not to be filmed and so, presumably, misrepresented: “Really, it’s just a party for kids and they happen to be white,” he says.
Here the film runs into its own problem of “judgment.” The white-only prom planners are represented in spite of their efforts not to be, via descriptions by others and court-reporter-style drawings. When teacher Natashia McNair introduces “an incident that occurred between a female white student and a female black student,” these drawings show a hallway confrontation. In her own sit-down interview, the black student, Al’Lishia, adds, “She said that it was not right for us to have a prom together and so I retaliated.” When Principal Smith appears more “open” to the white girl’s version of events (that is, Al’Lishia had a gun), McNair concludes that as usual, “The black kids are just supposed to keep their mouths shut and say nothing at all.”
The movie’s use of drawings to make this and other “incidents” visible reveals a central dilemma, how to represent what’s not taped. These events are typically introduced by conventional means—interviews with willing participants, concerning run-ins with those who are unwilling. “The racist people,” says Billie Joe, “They don’t want the whole world to know they’re racist, because maybe a small portion of ‘em knows it’s not right to be racist.” When Jessica, who is white, recalls a meeting of “white-only prom” parents and students, she sits with her white fiancé and “one of [his] best friends,” Calvin. Under cartoon images of the meeting, Jessica recalls one mother was “just talking about ‘n’ this and ‘n’ that.” The camera shows Calvin’s face as Jessica describes the woman’s diatribe (“‘Niggers’ weren’t gonna grind up on my daughter,” “We’re not gonna have mixed babies in my family”) and her own decision to leave the meeting.
It’s an awkward moment, and telling, as it becomes clear that, as Freeman observes, “This bugaboo of sex has absolutely drowned out common sense in terms of how young people interact.’ It also suggests how Calvin and his friends have come to live with this “bugaboo” on a daily basis. Another set of interviews, with Heather (who is white) and her black boyfriend Jeremy (as far as we see, the only interracial couple in town), is set off with her father Glenn, a self-described “redneck.” While the kids sit on a porch, his arm around her shoulder, dad sits in his tool shed, trucker’s cap tipped back on his head as he ponders her choice. “Personally, I don’t agree with it,” he says. “I haven’t whupped her. I tried grounding her and taking her phone away, of course, but that didn’t do no good.” For now, Glenn concludes, he can only hope that they’ll go away to college and grow apart. In the meantime, he can only make sure they don’t spend time alone together, so their romance is restricted to texting and meetings in public places, either in school hallways or in front of Saltzman’s camera. “We don’t usually hold hands,” Jeremy says.
In making visible Heather and Jeremy’s defiance, as well as Glenn’s concerns, Prom Night in Mississippi also gives them all chances to speak. More often than not, they can’t quite articulate how they feel. “My love for him is really, really deep,” Heather says, “I don’t know, it’s really un-describable.” Jeremy smiles alongside her. “I can’t really put it into words, I just try to act it out every day.” But if language fails, their awkward, earnest posing for the camera makes clear that they embody their own future.