2008

July 20, 2009
HBO
Canada
English
90 Minutes
Documentary
Paul Saltzman

Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Charleston High School in Mississippi finally integrated their single high school in 1970. In that year, the seniors had two proms. One for the white kids and one for the black kids. And that’s the way it continued until Charleston’s most famous resident, Morgan Freeman, offered in 1999 to pay for a single prom, provided it was integrated. He was turned down. So he tried again in 2008. This time the schoolboard and the seniors themselves said yes.

The high school has 415 students, 70% of whom are black.

The documentary crew gave cameras to a dozen or so students, probably the most outspoken of the group. All of the kids were fine going to an integrated school and living in an integrated town. At least all of the ones who appeared on camera. One white senior male was photographed behind a screen for fear that his family would see him brazenly say things like “I’ve had white lovers and black lovers and it’s what’s inside that counts.”

Whenever something comes up that speaks for the other side–that is, the racist side–the cameras aren’t there to capture it and we see events unfold with animation. People in this town may be racist, but they also are careful. A white girl claims that a black girl threatened her and then brought a gun to school the next day. We hear from the black girl but the white one is nowhere to be found.

A prom committee is formed and rules are established. One white girl resigns from the committee because she would not be attending the mixed prom, though she would go to one if it were white-only.

Meanwhile, the townspeople are reacting. We hear from several parents, who remember their own segregated proms. We meet one white senior girl (who looks to be about 14) who openly talks about her black boyfriend (who looks, maybe 15). They aren’t particularly demonstrative at school. They don’t hold hands in front of people, and neither has ever been allowed to visit the other one’s home. They claim to be in love, and with West-coast 2009 eyes, they seem like a naive, though cute couple. But to people stuck in the past in Mississippi, they might just represent the downfall of the human species.

The woman’s father is by far the most open about his thoughts on their relationship. He is one of those “you can either love me or hate me. I hope you love me, but if you don’t, keep to yourself and I’ll do the same” type of southerners. He claims to have plenty of black friends, but he feels like his girl will be hurt when she gets out into a real world that won’t approve of her boy choice. The boy’s parents take a more “be careful” approach. The man tried to punish his daughter by grounding her and taking her cell phone, but she stayed with the boy. As the school’s sole interracial couple, the prom has extra meaning for them.

We need tension, and it comes in the form of some parents paying for and holding a white-only prom after all. A meeting is held in someone’s house and two of our interview subjects recount being there and hearing a father say “no black boy is going to rub up all on my daughter at a dance” and they take off denouncing the meeting and the prom. Some white kids refuse to go, but others don’t. And the ones who went received much less scorn than I would have expected. They took dates to a party to which an entire ethnic group was excluded. And they didn’t feel particularly bad about it.

The white parents hire a lawyer who speaks to the film crews in their stead. He begins saying things that make them look worse while trying to make them look better. One obvious question for a lawyer is “why won’t those parents speak to us?” To which he replies “They don’t want to appear racist.” By holding a white-only event, they don’t want to appear racist. Nice.

Clips of Freeman driving around, clips of kids worried about dresses and tuxedos and big enough limos and whom to go with begin to take over. Beauty parlor scenes, texting, music apprehension. It all seems pretty normal.

One thing that isn’t easy to see is that just about everyone we see in town is poor. These kids come out of trailers and walk down milk crate steps while dressed in beautiful, colorful outfits. It seems like the town much more alike than the older generations would lead you to believe.

The film is most successful in documenting an anachronistic town, with a single small high school, who can’t seem to get their head around racial diversity and interaction, more than 50 years after the Supreme Court ruled on the matter.

8.4 IMDB

PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI

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Written by Michael W. Cummins