Prom Night in Mississippi - HBO documentary
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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“It’s my prayer that we can use something as a catalyst that allows them to interact socially,” Morgan Freeman.This is the heartfelt sentiment that Academy-award winning veteran actor and Charleston, Mississippi, native Morgan Freeman embraced when he, for the second time, made the integrated student body at Charleston High School an offer they didn’t refuse.
Their challenge was simple—to hold just one prom, for both the black and white students.
Not many would still imagine that there are segregated proms still being held in Mississippi in the 21st century, in what many are calling the post racial age, but racism still exists in this small town of about 2,200 people. But if racism exists anywhere, certainly it’s alive and festering in southern Mississippi. And Freeman was dedicated to stump out at least a bit of the “stupidity” that accompanied the mostly white parents who insisted on having two proms, because they didn’t want their children mingling socially with the black students.
But proms aren’t just simple gatherings; there’s much fanfare, anticipation and preparation attached to this time-honored festive rite of passage. And the end result for the students at Charleston High School—if they could pull this off—would be something so much grander than the occasion itself. The students could affect a sea change for their community and dispel historically prejudicial attitudes around integration, while annihilating the hate that permeated in the minds of many Charleston residents. And while the students may have been willing to hold just one united prom, some of their parents didn’t relish the idea of the two races mingling. They felt it was enough that they attended class together; there was certainly no need for them to share a dance floor.
The documentary shows the students, faculty and parents planning the big event, setting themes, finding locations and doing what would finally be best for all involved. There was no monetary limit. Freeman just wanted the group to accomplish this monumental feat, against much opposition, and show the world that his birthplace wasn’t so backward after all. Students and parents are captured in candid interviews, revealing their stances on race relations in Charleston; many didn’t believe that black and whites should mingle; others said they were just adhering to mores that had been handed down in their families for generations. One black female student offered that the white parents didn’t want the black male students “grinding” up against the white female students. One white parent shared that her grandmother thought that if God had wanted all people to be one and the same, he wouldn’t have made people two different colors. But one young white male also countered that Charleston could be so much happier if the races lived in harmony, as opposed to blacks on one side of town and whites on the other. And another white female student shared that since she had friendships with both blacks and whites, she had been discriminated against while looking for jobs around town.
The documentary is a mixed media of live footage and dramatizations of important events, i.e., two girls, one black and one white, get into a discussion about their thoughts on attending the prom. The situation gets out of hand, with the white girl accusing the black girl of threatening her. These dramatizations are depicted in drawings or animation, which lends itself nicely to the documentary, as it serves to really amplify the importance of the discussion or issues covered in these particular scenes.
As the time approaches for the prom, it’s discovered that a group of white parents still insists on holding a prom and “senior walk” for white students only. Not many white students attend, and it seems there are some who do attend but are also committed to attending the integrated prom. The white prom doesn’t go off too smoothly, with many teens drinking in the limo on their way to the event; a fight breaking out during the prom and a good many of the seniors seemingly bored during the evening. When the day in April 2008 arrives for the integrated prom, both black and white students are shown getting dressed, primping and sharing a limo ride to the event. Freeman is not able to attend but sends his best wishes via video.
The integrated prom is a success, and the students have a great time. There aren’t any disagreements or scuffles (as opposed to events that unfolded at the white prom). While the students danced to their own individual beats, they were, in fact, all in harmony that evening, including the white guy who had two dates; the interracial couple (a black male and white female, whose father was an avowed “redneck” but who slowly came to accept his daughter’s wishes; while the young man’s parents feared for him to visit the girlfriend’s home); and a black girl who felt cheated out of her spot as class valedictorian.
Even though some of the parents didn’t agree, the students were on to something, and this documentary goes a long way to show just what a group of concerned citizens—once united—can do to make its community more inclusive, all while making one of Charleston, Mississippi’s esteemed native sons proud as a peacock!
Prom Night in Mississippi is directed by Paul Saltzman and was an official selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. It premieres Monday, July 20, on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern. It’s part of the HBO thought-provoking documentary film series presented this summer.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago.
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