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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD Review: Prom Night in Mississippi

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#1 of 2 OFFLINE   Ed Faver

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Posted January 23 2010 - 08:31 AM

Prom Night in Mississippi

The Film  4.5/5

Charleston, Mississippi, population 2100, is a small, Bible Belt community where racism hangs on in subtle ways. In 1970, 16 years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, Charleston integrated its high school. However, the school's annual 'Graduation Dance' remained segregated. There would be a white prom and a black prom. And that's the way it was. Prom Night in Mississippi, a documentary directed by Paul Saltzman and produced by Patricia Aquino, tells the story of the first successful attempt to integrate Charleston's prom.

Charleston's most prominent citizen is the actor Morgan Freeman. In 1997, he offered to fully fund the prom--IF it was integrated. Opening title cards tell us that his offer was ignored. In 2008, he made the offer and again. This time, the school board was interested and Saltzman's cameras follow the process from the first sitdown between Freeman and school representatives through the aftermath of prom night. Freeman sees the separate proms as 'stupid.' The kids tell him that they don't want separate proms, separate homecoming queens, but the school board wants it. And the parents want it. As cameras roam the hallways of Charleston High School on a typical day, we see kids, white and black, socializing together and learning together. Individual student interviews indicate that this socializing only goes so far. There is a certain amount of 'keeping to one's own.' But there is no open animosity. Freeman's goal is to provide an opportunity for greater social intermingling. As he says: "To allow the social interaction to happen, not to force it. To allow it and it will happen."

Freeman speaks to the seniors and quickly gets their agreement that one, integrated prom is the way to go. They are clearly excited by the fact that he will PAY for the prom, too. But, what high school senior wouldn't be? Freeman is asked if he will attend and he states that he will be working in New York and will not be there. from this point on, the film belongs to the kids and their families, who have a lot to say and to teach us. His last comment before leaving the center of the film is "We'll see what happens. If it's left up to the kids, it's going to be fine. If the grownups get too involved...it's going to be different." So, we don't know if this experiment is going to succeed to not.

Saltzman hands out Canon HD camcorders to some of the students who provide us with a video diary of the days and weeks leading up to the prom. He interviews others himself. One particularly moving interview subject is a student, 'Billy Joe' (a false name) whose image is obscured and voice changed. 'Billy Joe' describes himself as from a family of avowed racists who would punish him for openly participating in the film. In an interview in the Extras section, the director describes 'Billy Joe's' willingness to be interviewed as a key moment in the production of the film. Previous to 'Billy Joe,' Saltzman was unable to get any student whose family was openly opposed to the integrated prom to go on camera. The director should be credited for seeking out balance throughout the film. 'Billy Joe' agonized over his decision to go on camera and states that he could be disowned if his family were to discover his actions. Billy Joe tells us that he loves his parents in spite of his disagreement with their racism. He wisely states that one shuts a door on a relationship when you don't love your parents even when you disagree with them. He ruefully adds, "or when parents disagree with their kids."

On the way to the day of the prom, some tensions arise. A fight between a white female student and a black female student that occurs off-camera is recounted. The fight is about the white student's distaste over an integrated prom and escalates quickly to the black student being accused of carrying a gun. A black teacher describes the incident as we see it as a series of naturalistic, comic-book illustrations. Saltzman uses this device to good effect on a handful of occasions throughout the film (where cameras were not present or allowed) as witnesses provide narration.

As prom approaches, we see the boys and girls preparing as kids all over America ready themselves for this annual rite of passage. One white student, Jessica, who fully supports the integrated prom continually expresses wonder over the fact that this group of kids, black and white, have been together since kindergarten. Now, she asks, at their last opportunity to formally socialize together, why do they have to be separated? Saltzman can find no one to go on camera with a good answer to that question.

Throughout the film, we see example after example of kids being kids. Color might play a role in some relationships, but for the most part, the 'cliques' are drawn on fairly typical grounds: common interests. Left to their own devices, the students tend to socialize with less regard to skin pigment than to value correlation.

We see one example of an interracial couple: Heather and Jeremy. These young people state their love on camera and their hope for a future together. They are only as naive as any young couple with an extremely limited understanding and experience of the real world. What makes them particularly interesting is their parents. Heather's father, Glenn, is interviewed and his comments are interspersed heavily in the film. He is not in favor of his daughter's relationship with a young black man. He describes himself as a typical redneck and, to look at him, he fits the bill. However, he speaks with gentleness and a true love of his daughter. He states his opposition to the relationship. With a pause, he goes on to say that he will always love his daughter and will never desert her. It is incredibly moving without ever becoming maudlin. This man cannot wrap his head around what his daughter is feeling and wanting, yet, he pledges to always be a support for her. He says, 'You can't determine who your child is going to love, but I'm not going to turn my back on her--ever." Jeremy's parents are equally perplexed at their son's choice, but it seems to be more out of a fear of what could happen to a mixed couple in Mississippi.

As the prom approaches, a decision is made that some parents and community members want a white prom and proceed with plans to organize the event. White students describe pressure from their families to attend. Most are opposed to it and some bow to parental wishes. The kids are confused and feel the white prom is a 'stupid' idea. However, the white prom does happen, with 35 attendees. The highlight of this event, as reported by one young man, is a fight between two boys over the attentions of a girl. Saltzman's cameras are barred from this event. He gets his information about the event from an attorney hired by the organizing parents.

When we arrive at the integrated prom, it is a joyous event. The kids behave like kids. They sing and dance and enjoy themselves. There are no fights, no intoxication, The evening is completely unexceptional when compared with proms occurring in other American towns across the country and, yet, for Charleston, Mississippi, it is an earth-shaking event. This town's little world will never be the same and the larger world that these kids will enter as adults will be the better for it.

Video 4/5

The film is fully digital, with the kids' video diaries shot on Canon HV 20 HD camcorders and the rest of the footage shot on a combination of a Canon XL H1A  prosumer camera and a Panasonic Varicam. The images are generally bright and warm. Visually, it's easy on the eyes, but not meant to be a disc that will show off your monitor.

Audio 4/5

The film is recorded in two-channel Dolby stereo. The audio is limited to the front channels. Again, this is not a reference disc and the value of the film is not in the soundtrack. That said, the audio is clear and the talking heads are easy to understand. At one point, some female students are interviewed while having their hair styled. The shop is noisy and the director chooses to provide open captions to make certain the speakers are understood.

Extras 2.5/5
The features on this disc are limited, but of decent quality. There are several deleted scenes that illuminate the film, but are wisely left out of the feature as they tend to be repetitive. A 22-minute 'conversation' with the director and producer is of interest. We learn the director's interest in the subject and his struggles in getting the 'white prom' side of the story. He speaks of his efforts to get Glenn, the white father of the young lady dating a black student. He was able to convince Glenn to speak on camera by suggesting that people need to hear that it is possible to disagree with your child's choice of partner because of his race and STILL love your child. It's powerful stuff. The remainder of the extras are filmmaker bios, a trailer, and trailers for other films distributed by Docurama.

In Summary 4/5

Prom Night in Mississippi is worth your time and money. It was first screened on HBO as part of their Documentary Film series. If you did not catch it when it appeared in July 2009, look for it on HBO or in your video store. It is recommended viewing.

#2 of 2 OFFLINE   Neil Middlemiss

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Posted January 24 2010 - 01:30 PM

Thanks for the review, Ed. I saw this when HBO aired it and found it (and the subjects in it) surprising, touching, frustrating, and extremely well handled. I found myself pitying the narrow-minded, fearful views of some in this film.
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