In a town divided by race, this is their chance to make history.
Here’s the setup: Actor Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight) learned in the mid-90s that the high school in his childhood hometown, Charlestown, Mississippi, still held separate proms, one for white students and the other for black students. He then made an appeal to the schools for a fully integrated prom, but this was allegedly ignored. In 2008, Freeman paid a visit to the school in person, offering to pay for the prom only if it’s integrated. A documentary crew led by filmmaker Paul Saltzman tagged along, recording life in the school and around town as it takes up Freeman’s offer this time. The result is Prom Night in Mississippi.
At first, everyone seems positive and upbeat about the change. It’s hilarious when Freeman calls a room full of school officials idiots right to their faces. Then, when he addresses the students, they are understandably excited to meet him, and are enthused at the idea of a combined prom, especially after learning that he’s footing the bill. Then, Freeman leaves the planning of the prom in the school’s hands and departs. That’s when things get interesting—and a little frightening.
While there is excitement about the prom, there is also trepidation. Racial tensions still exist in this small town and its school, perhaps not as overt as it was in the past, but still there. A fight between a white and black girl escalates so that police are called to the school. Then, a group of white parents decide to hold their own whites-only prom, adamant about keeping the documentary cameras away from it. Heather and Jeremy, one of few mixed-race couples at the school, do not hold hands at school because of how people might react, and they worry about whether the prom will be safe for them. Others are just conflicted, such as Heather’s father, who doesn’t like her dating a black boy, but says he will stand by his daughter no matter what.
Numerous student interviews say they believe there is no reason not to integrate the prom. When asked why it hasn’t been before, the students are quick to point the fingers at their parents. Some of the adults interviewed respond by saying the separate proms have more to do with tradition than with race, and that it’s a fear of change rather than a fear of race. Answers are fleeting. A lot of these big, complicated issues are sometimes in the background, though as we get the usual scenes of preparing for the prom, with a Southern small town feel. There are kids fretting over getting dates, girls on the quest for the perfect dress, and so on. Discussions of race are often sidelined by discussions of how much fun everyone hopes to have. There are about twelve or thirteen main “characters” we follow throughout the film, as each is interviewed, with a little background on their interests and personalities. One boy is the only white kid on the basketball team, another girl hopes to be valedictorian, and hopes that race won’t be an issue for that as well.
We all love a good documentary, but even the best docs have that question mark over them, as viewers ask “What aren’t we seeing?” “What more is there to the story that’s not in the movie?” Two big incidents, the school girl fight and the all-white prom, are depicted as comic-book style drawings, narrated by people who were there, or who merely heard about what happened. What was that all-white prom really like? We the viewers will probably never know. Similarly, the parents who organized that event never once appear on camera, instead letting their attorney make a few short comments on their behalf.
The full frame picture and stereo sound are not elaborate, but they are free of defects. The extras kick off with a interview with Saltzman and producer Patricia Acquino, who discuss the challenges of making the movie. From there, we get about 18 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, a text bio for Saltzman, the movie’s trailer, and promos for other Docurama releases.
With a number of personalities on screen, the film zips along at a quick pace (except for the occasional car washing or dancing montage) and builds nicely to a big ending. Recommended.