Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prom Night in Mississippi

It isn't often that I watch a movie twice. I don't mean to disparage filmmakers. I do own films that I've seen many times for one reason or another. And documentaries, in particular, can bring me back again and again, especially if I decide to show them in class. But Prom Night in Mississippi, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Richard Saltzman's contribution to the HBO collection, available on DVD from Docurama films, is a rare find, indeed. I liked it even better the second time around.

The film, presented with HBO's usual state-of-the-art finesse, is the story of how, on April 19, 2008, the first ever racially-integrated high school prom was held in what Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman calls at one point, "a little bitty burg" in Mississippi. Charleston, Mississippi, with its population of just over 2000 people, where Freeman often visited his grandmother as a child, is now his home. Even so, and in spite of the fact that the public schools in Charleston were de-segregated in 1970, the local high school students had continued to have a Black prom and a White prom year after year where the groups elected separate Homecoming Kings and Queens.

In 1997, Freeman boldly offered to finance an integrated prom and was ignored. In 2007, he resurrected the offer and this time, was allowed by hesitant school administrators and parents to make a proposal to the students who agreed to the idea of having one prom for all of them on Freeman's nickel.

Describing the segregated festivities as "idiocy," Freeman was confident that the problem did not belong to the young people, but rather demonstrated a need to change the parents and school officials that teach them. The youth -- by and large -- agreed.

Jessica, a young European-American woman with close friends on both sides of the color line, is most direct: "Mississippi needs to get over its racism. And all the country/redneck/hicks can kiss. my. ass." Her White fiance, wearing longish hair and a cocked Dobb, was quick to articulate the same attitude. But not everyone interviewed expressed similar opinions.

Some of the school administrators almost immediately raised their concerns about "safety," assuring the young people (who had asked for no such reassurance) that there would be rules to "make sure you're safe," that they would "watch out for your best interests," and that they would be prepared to "deal with situations."

The first such "situation" occurred shortly thereafter, when a White girl made some flat statements in a classroom about her displeasure over the decision and a Black girl defended it. The altercation escalated until the White student finally made an unsubstantiated claim that the African-American had brought a gun to school. White parents opposed to the idea of "niggers rubbin' up against my daughter," declared that they intended to have "no mixed babies up in this house" and resolutely planned a separate Whites-only "prom" for their children anyway.

Nevertheless, Freeman called it his "prayer" that the youth would be allowed to have social contact, sure that given the chance, they would take it. And in truth, the students articulated very well the difference between being "raised racist" and "being racist." Still, with the very real specter of being disowned hanging over their heads, even a boy nicknamed "White Chocolate" -- the only European-American on the basketball team -- agreed to attend both events, to assuage his parents.

The most poignant story line concerns high school seniors Heather, with fair skin, and her boyfriend of five years, Jeremy, who is African-American. The couple, despite the White supremacist stance of Heather's step-father and the obvious fears of Jeremy's parents for his safety, are almost classically Romeo and Juliet in their camera scenes. Utterly committed to each other and full of maturity and reason, they make most of the rest of the town characters -- students and adults alike -- appear somewhat silly by comparison.

While much of the movie is conversational, it manages never to be sluggish or flat, maintaining a steady pace from start to finish and moving from point to point in such a way that the viewer can see how interwoven human community -- especially in a microcosm like Charleston, Mississippi -- really is. Juxtaposing the drama of parents and students trying to block social change with the drama of young people excitedly planning for their senior prom maintains a delicate tension throughout the film and is one of the primary reasons I enjoyed it even more the second time. The nuances are so many in number, it simply isn't possible to catch them all the first time. White Jessica with tears in her eyes as she recounts what her anti-racist stance has cost her, Black Calvin describing how the police officers who made him drop his pants on the side of the highway in an ostensible search for drugs speak to him on the street as if nothing had happened, or a White lawyer announcing in a lawyerly fashion that his "clients" (the parents who bankrolled, planned and held the Whites-only "prom") refuse to be interviewed for fear they'll be "thought racist" -- the film is loaded with sound-bites that carry the story along.

Still, Saltzman keeps the ultimate focus on the pride the students felt in, as one of them put it, "a few kids from our town changing a little piece of the world." One boy, who chose to speak only anonymously and behind a blurring screen, added: "This generation is gonna do what makes them happy...People that try to stop that are gonna be sadly disappointed in the long run." And I would argue, not just disappointed, but pushed aside and left behind. This is made particularly clear when Chasidy, the Black girl who missed being Valedictorian by a controversial ruling, announces confidently to the camera with a sly grin that her dream is to "come back and take over the high school, the whole school system, and make a difference in the world."

Here's to Chasidy, to the students of Charleston High School who attended the integrated prom in 2008, and to those responsible for bringing us this presentation so resounding with honesty, hope and joy. Because -- one way or the other -- we all live in Charleston. And that's a fact.


Anonymous said...

Just saw the movie the night before last. Agreed - we all live in Charleston. Wish there was a "how are they doing now" website somewhere and an update on whether that high school has been holding segregated or unsegregated proms since.

Changeseeker said...

Wow. I tried googling to find something -- anything -- in the way of an update and you're right, Anonymous. It ain't out there. Disappointing. Any Faithful Readers have a clue about whether or not Charleston, Mississippi, continued to integrate their high school proms after the one in 2008?

Anonymous said...

well, it appears they are still holding a separate whites only prom-see link (but since it looks like there's only 10 couples, hopefully there is still another and it is integrated): http://krystalharbinphotography.zenfolio.com/p815311721/h94647f4#h94647f4

Changeseeker said...

One can only wonder, Anonymous 12:42, how these folks will do in the real world. There is one and it don't look like that photo, does it?

Anonymous said...

As a 24yr old NW native/resident, I just simply do not and will NEVER understand the arrogance & overall frame of thinking of the White's in the South...passing racist values down to your children is child abuse. SHAME.

Anonymous said...

Sadly I am white and from the South and I completely agree with you.

Shannon MacLean said...

I spent my young life (from age 6 - 20) moving all around the US. In my young years we landed in Mobile, Alabama, twice. The longest 'stay' was my HS years. I met my high school sweetheart when I was a freshman, and we were a strong couple all though HS. I'm white, and he was black. This was in the mid 1980's. I don't say "race" because we are all one race ... human. I say "biggot." There were just as many white biggots as there were black biggots. I faced many adversaries, including my boyfriend's mother, who never allowed me to her home. Never. Although my boyfriend was allowed at my home, it was only when my step-father was not there. He had the same mindset as the stepfather in this documentary. Exactly the same. Sadly, my sweetheart turned out to be a rotten guy ... but that had nothing to do the shade of his skin, just his character.

And yes, we NEED an update on this school ... and most of all, these students! They are adults now ... 24-26 years of age. We need updates on their lives!

Brandy said...

For the last three years my new york area based 9 th grade students have contacted the school and spoke to the asst. principal and guidance counselor but never found out exactly what the prom situation is now. They always ended the calls by saying they would call back with info but never did.

Changeseeker said...

Shannon: thanks for adding your personal story to this post. And Brandy: all I can say is, "Why am I not surprised?"

Laura Barr said...

Well I looked into it and sadly, as of 2013, their proms are still segregated ! That is truly horrifying ! :(