Prom Night in Mississippi

Charleston High School, April 19, 2008, Charleston, Mississippi.

Photo: Copyright Catherine Farquharson/Paul Saltzman

Prom Night in Mississippi (2008). Directed by Paul Saltzman.

It’s hard to believe, but on April 19, 2008, Charleston High School in Mississippi had its first integrated senior prom. Mississippi integrated its public schools in 1970 but in Charleston, they were still holding separate proms for black students and white students.

Actor Morgan Freeman lives in Charleston. He always thought that it was ridiculous that this kind of segregation still existed in America. In 1997 he offered to pay for an integrated prom of black and white Charleston High School students. The school turned him down. Director Paul Saltzman approached Morgan Freeman in 2007 and asked him if he was willing to try again. Freeman agreed, the school accepted his offer and Saltzman captured the events leading up to this historic event.

The interesting thing is that all of the students wanted an integrated prom. White and black students shared the same classroom so it made sense that they should have a prom with their fellow students and friends.

The parents of some of the white students were against a “mixed” prom and insisted on continuing the tradition of having a “white prom”. It turns out that the private “white prom” was kind of “vanilla” and boring. Many of the white students ended up attending the integrated prom and enjoyed themselves more.

It’s difficult to understand why racism is still so strong in pockets of the American south to this day. The film examines the tradition of segregation in Charleston and finds that the students don’t really care about race, but their parents do. Many of the white students know their parents are racist but they want to keep them happy, so they just do what they’re told.

I find it amusing that it took a Canadian filmmaker from Oakville, Ontario and a academy award-winning actor to bring about positive change in the deep south. The story sounds incredible and it is but the film never finds the tension or drama that could have made Prom Night in Mississippi, an incredible film.

**

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Posted in Hot Docs at 9:39 PM