Charleston High School in Charleston Mississippi finally integrated in 1970, the local school district having joined much of the American South in mounting “massive resistance” against the 1954 Brown V. Board decision that allegedly ended Jim Crow education. Even after 1970, life remained divided by racial lines and, at Charleston High School, the senior prom itself remained segregated.
In 1997, academy award wining actor, and Mississippi native, Morgan Freeman offered to pay for an integrated prom. The school board refused. In 2008, Freeman made the offer again and it was accepted — at least officially.
Prom Night in Mississippi tells what happened next. This important documentary by filmmaker Paul Saltzman explores the role of race in a small southern town. Told almost entirely from the perspective of students, this is a film about young people struggling under the enormous weight of history they did not make and trying to describe their experience in the limited and obfuscating language of race that American society has provided them. Exuberantly hopeful, it also demands that the viewer ask tough questions about the state of race in America.
The great achievement of Prom Night in Mississippi is it ability to bring the viewer fully and completely into the sub-culture of a small southern high school in the most rural part of an extraordinarily rural state. Undoubtedly creating vertiginous culture shock for many viewers, this quick immersion allows us to quickly get to know the students of the senior class whose lives are scarred by the legacy and living reality of racism.
We meet a young African American who cannot even imagine the possibility of dating a white person, a young white woman threatened with violence by her step-father for having an African American friend, and a young white woman, very much in love with her African American boyfriend, but also facing the deeply befuddled disapproval of her father, a self-described “redneck” who hopes fervently that his daughter’s interracial relationship will end.
Some viewers might feel that the film’s angle of vision is highly limited. We are only introduced to those who disapprove of the integrated prom through a student who refused to give his real name and is only filmed in shadow and by a lawyer for a group of parents who sought to hold, incredibly, a rival “whites only” prom. These same parents refuse to talk to the camera because, in the words of their lawyer, they might be perceived as “racists and hypocritical.” No shit, Sherlock.
Does this damage an otherwise excellent documentary film? Saltzman talks in a very illuminating 22-minute interview bundled with the DVD’s extras about his own concerns about this missing element. Could he tell an authentic story without more from that part of the community that unrepentantly held to their reactionary attitudes and viewed the prom as a pitched battle over cultural and racial change?
I found myself feeling that Saltzman had done a real service by keeping the racist naysayers from spewing their ugliness into his story. After all, do we really need to hear more of the half-formed thoughts that comprise racism in the United States, the vacillations and posturing that make up the new and confusing conservative language of race that begins sentences with the tell-tale “I’m not racist or anything but…?” It is much more compelling to listen to teenagers struggling to make sense of what it means to grow up in a social world where racism has structured their lives while also encountering people of a different race as schoolmates, friends and lovers.
The DVD extras on this documentary are excellent and further illuminate this important story. In one deleted segment, the filmmaker’s attempt to shoot at a National Guard armory where the “white prom” will be held and are sent away by local police and a representative of the National Guard, raising all kinds of questions about why a Federal official is aiding and abetting a discriminatory function held at a Federal military installation.
In another deleted scene, we hear more from the “white prom” parent’s lawyer Jeff Padgett, whose description of his client’s activities reads like a primer for the talking points of neo-conservative “new racism”. Padgett talks about tension between the races as if a moral equivalency exists between the prejudices of both groups and puts forward the canard that segregating a social function is really all about “safety”. What is most terrifying about this is that such language is not only the language of a small-town Mississippi lawyer — it often makes its way into American political discourse.
This is a vitally important film for an allegedly post-racial society. The election of Barack Obama meant many things to Americans, and its historic significance cannot be limited to a single variable. But it’s true that for some whites it meant a vote to redeem their very real, and much deserved, sense of racial guilt. For many young people, the election became a symbol that racism is dead, that it no longer matters in the American cultural conversation. This is naïveté of both the past and the present.
This is a film that easily evokes righteous indignation about the way things worked, and in many places still work, in the American South. A segregated prom is, after all, an especially egregious and shocking symbol of ignorance. But what about segregated urban environments where black and white do not live together? Or the fact that in much of the United States, statistics of life expectancy, infant mortality, unemployment and imprisonment can be traced along a racial vector? On prom night in Mississippi, the lines are drawn in bold colors; in other places the lines run deeper and cannot be seen without a second, hard, look.