Prom Night in Mississippi (2009) dir. Paul Saltzman
By Alan Bacchus
The citizens of Charleston, Mississippi remind me of those stories you’ve heard about stranded Japanese WWII soldiers on remote Pacific Islands, who ‘never got the memo’, and continued to think the War was still on years after the fact. At the time of the making of this film 2008, this small city of 20,000 in the heart of the old confederate South continued to function as a near-racially segregated community. Canadian director Paul Saltzman aims his camera at Charleston high school who somehow continued an atrocious tradition of having two separate proms, a white prom and a black prom.
Almost too impossible to believe - in this day and age, in a bastion of freedom, the United States of America, an activity like this goes on. The effort to integrate is given a very strong push by none other than Morgan Freedom, who is embarrassed by his hometown’s inability to see the field from the trees. Freeman addresses the senior class and questions them on why they continue such policies. Everyone says, it’s the parents, who harbour latent racial tendencies from the pre-Civil Rights Movement days. So Freeman proposes that the students organize their own integrated prom and that Freeman pays for it.
It would seem like an easy solution – having an endorsement from a successful Hollywood movie star, having a blank cheque to make it all happen, not to mention having it all documented for the entire world to see as a feature documentary. Well, this was actually the second offer Freeman has made, the first time in 1997 where it was rejected. This time, the students embrace the opportunity to erase this tradition and make it right.
As the school year progresses, shockingly a silent majority protests, the racist parents of the children organize a separate white prom, thus keeping alive their appalling practice. Saltzman’s gregarious characters made up of students, teachers, and local politicians are lively and frank, and speak from the heart. It’s wonderful mix of the familiar high school personalities, jocks, geeks, princesses who band together in the name of civil unity.
But the biggest missed opportunity is the inability of Saltzman to interview the advocates of the segregation. Saltzman finds one parent, a self-professed redneck, who dislikes his daughter dating a black man, but is not against an integrated prom. Even the participants acknowledge that finding parents to publicly admit to their highly unpopular opinions on camera would be near suicidal. In many ways not this works for the film. This unseen majority acts like a shadowy spectre over the town and the film, a shadow which not even the racially accepting students can get from under.
The film climaxes with a rousing party scene at the integrated prom where the events goes off without a hitch, without the threat of violence some thought might arise. We see participants joyously exclaim racial unity and group love. Yet the film doesn’t quite capture or capitalize on the sad irony of this ending. In the final group photo we only see a small group of white students, which means, despite the accepting the call for action by Freeman at the beginning, most of them would appear to have succumbed to the pressure of their parents either to a) not attend the integrated prom or b) not appear in the group photo.
Despite this claim at victory, I’d say it’s more a sad defeat for the community, where the racist white parents managed to keep the white prom tradition alive, and an even greater defeat, the fact that most of the protesting white students actually attended that event. Either way these complex ambiguities make the film fascinating on levels.