Prom Night in Mississippi: HBO’s New Documentary

Sixteen years after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools, Charleston, Miss. integrated its high school – but the community still held two graduation dances, one for white students and one for black students.  In 1997, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, a Charleston resident, offered to pay for the prom, under one condition:  that it be integrated.  Though his offer was ignored, he made it again in 2008, and this time, the school accepted.  History was made – but not without significant opposition.

An official selection of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the HBO documentary PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI chronicles the historic journey of a high school and its community when it debuts MONDAY, JULY 20 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT).

          
Following its 2008 summer series, HBO Documentary Films kicks off another weekly series this summer, presenting a provocative new special every Monday night at 9:00 p.m. (ET/PT) from July 13 and through Sept. 7.  Other July presentations include:  “Teddy:  In His Own Words,” launching the series July 13, and “The Yes Men Fix the World” (July 27).


Directed by Paul Saltzman, PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI deftly weaves together student-made videos, interviews and fly-on-the-wall moments with students, school officials, parents and Freeman himself.  “I live here,” Freeman tells an assembly of seniors.  “I think it is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of that in this time…you children are being brought up this way.  It hurts me deeply.”


The documentary is an eye-opening reminder that racism is alive and well in America, 54 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to segregated public schools.  Resistance to integrating the prom comes primarily from parents, while the students, for the most part, sound a hopeful note, articulating their own feelings in the face of the prejudices of their parents and grandparents.


Even after the integrated prom is announced and backed by the school administration, some white parents, who forbid their children to attend the integrated prom, organize a separate “whites only” prom for their children.  The filmmakers tell the story of this “whites only” dance, where cameras are not allowed, through graphic novel-style illustrations based on the first-hand accounts of students who attend it.


Of Charleston High’s 415 students, 70% are African-American and 30% are white.  In interviews and video diaries, they talk about race at their school and the impact of an integrated prom.  Among the students spotlighted:

 

Chasidy, an African-American student who is shocked that her school still has segregated proms in 2008.  Says Chasidy of her white friend Cecily, “I trust her before I trust some of my black friends, because I know the type of person that she is.”  Cecily adds, “I’ve just learned to love people for who they are, not for the color of their skin.”

 
Jessica, a white student who observes, “Mississippi has got to get over the racism.”  She and her boyfriend T.J. are friends with Calvin, who’s black.
          
Heather and Jeremy, an interracial couple who look forward to dancing together at the integrated prom.  Jeremy, who is black, admits his relationship is not the norm in Charleston, and his parents warn him to be careful.  The couple hopes to marry one day and have kids, but Heather’s father, Glenn, says he hopes they’ll go their separate ways after high school.

“Billy Joe,” a white student who appears behind a screen to conceal his identity.  “I just look at people because of what’s inside of them,” he says.  “But the adults around here?  You don’t tell them that, because they’ll get mad at you, really mad.”

 
Excitement builds as students black and white prepare for the big night, shopping for tuxedos and formal gowns, getting hairdos and manicures, and scrubbing their cars.  Seemingly inconsequential rites of passage take on a profound dimension as the weight of history falls on their teenage shoulders.  When prom night arrives, the event is a huge success, with live soul and rap music, a packed dance floor and a pre-recorded appearance on a big screen by Freeman, who cannot attend in person due to a prior acting commitment.  There is a sense that history is being made, and that the students have somehow grown from being a part of the process.


“The town of Charleston has dragged its feet in shaking off the shackles of racism,” says Saltzman.  “It took 16 years for it to allow black students to attend the white high school after the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in schools, and until now it has held on to a tradition of parent-organized white proms and black proms.  By holding its first integrated prom, Charleston High — with a push from Morgan Freeman — has struck a major blow for unity and equality.”


The prom appears to mark a turning point for the school.  One student speculates that the “whites only” prom will probably be the last of its kind, while others note that after the prom, black and white students are interacting more than in the past.  As “Billy Joe” explains, “This new generation coming up now, it’s going to really change Charleston…It’s going to be one community eventually, and if not, it’s going to be a lonely community.”


A separate HBO On Demand feature entitled “Prom Night in Mississippi:  One Year Later” revisits Charleston High to provide updates on the featured students, some of whom are attending college or working locally, along with two who are preparing to go to Iraq.  The segment also chronicles the second integrated prom, which is a success despite another “whites only” graduation dance.


PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI marks the feature directing debut of Paul Saltzman, a two-time Emmy-winning TV and film producer-director with 300 productions to his credit.  Also a published author and photographer, his most recent book is “The Beatles in India.”  One of Saltzman’s formative experiences was volunteering as a civil rights worker in 1965 with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi.

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HBO Documentary Films presents a Return to Mississippi Productions production; directed and produced by Paul Saltzman; producer, Patricia Aquino; editors, Kevin Schjerning, Stephen Phillipson and David Ransley; cinematographers, Bongo, Don Warren and Paul Saltzman; original music, Jack Lenz and Asher Lenz.  For HBO:  senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.