Friday, February 12, 2010

Prom Night in Mississippi

Prom Night in Mississippi (2009; dir. Paul Saltzman) is about the first integrated senior prom held at the only high school in Charleston, Mississippi, in 2008. The documentary does not blame or ridicule the community for taking time to catch up with the rest of the nation. In a modest way that avoids big claims, it shows how change and history don’t come to all parts of the nation at the same moment, and that what might have been dramatic and earth-shaking for one place three decades ago can be equally monumental in another place today.

By mostly relying on interviews with students and a few parents and school teachers and administrators, director Saltzman records the planning of the first integrated senior prom. The actor Morgan Freeman, a native of the town, was distressed that after so many years separate prom events continued to be held. He offered in 1998 to pay for a single, integrated event but the school declined. In 2007 he makes the offer again and is accepted. He appears briefly at the beginning and end of the film, which shows him making a visit to the high school to offer to sponsor an integrated prom.

The film suggests, and Freeman believes, that while the students want a single prom event, tradition, the school board, and a group of parents have forced separate events. The parents who opposed the single prom declined to be interviewed. Among the remaining parents, there is a range of views. The students express a range of views as well. Most claim not to be racists, though some agree that they don’t socialize with people of the other race either because they were raised not to do so or because the opportunity has never presented itself.

Freeman explains early in the film that he wanted the prom to serve as a catalyst for bringing students of different races together and getting them to socialize. All the black students, and many of the white students, express to Freeman their openness to the idea. But the film shows a lot of ambiguity in their attitudes, more among the white students than the black. Many of the white students worry about what their parents think about their black friends. One girl speaks of being physically threatened by her step-father. While all the students comfortably occupy the same gymnasium for the dance, for the most part the white and black students socialize separately. The film doesn’t show how other students react to the one mixed-race couple that attends the dance. As the end of the prom approaches, students seem to loosen up, there is more mixing and milling around, and we see a few white and black students (white males and black females) dancing together, and a more general willingness by most people in attendance to enjoy one another.

The film dramatizes how difficult social integration was, and can still be, and how it is difficult to make good on even the best of intentions. Even the most outspoken white boy in the film, who talks about his black friends and his disagreement with the racism of his elders, admits that he has never dated a black girl because he has never wanted to. Another white boy, who asked that his face be obscured and who uses a false name, implies that his parents would disown him if they knew he socialized with members of the black race. Those parents who disagree with the integrated prom organize a separate dance for white students only: many of the white students attend both events.

The father of the white girl who dates a black student describes himself as a “red neck” but claims that he is not prejudiced--he simply believes the two races shouldn’t socialize and talks about the different ways he has tried to keep his daughter from being with her black boyfriend. He admits that he cannot control what she does when she is not at home. In the end, however, he says that he will stick by her no matter what.

These are the true roots of racial progress, the father who through love of his own daughter comes to accept something fundamentally opposed to his upbringing.

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