In 1954, Charleston High School was ordered, like every other school in the country, to desegregate. Integration was instantaneous at some schools, happened a year or two later at others, and then, of course, there were determined stragglers; schools that used the Supreme Court's 1955 declaration of desegregation at "all deliberate speed" to delay and sometimes avoid integration altogether.
Sixteen years after it was supposed to happen, Charleston High School in Mississippi, finally allowed black students inside its walls.
Of course, Charleston's dwindling white population, who had fought so hard to stave off integration, managed to hold onto one small piece of Jim Crow: At this southern high school, white students attend one prom; black students attend another.
Lucky for Charleston, superstar Morgan Freeman calls the town of 2,100 home. And this segregated prom thing -- it really didn't sit well with him.
So in 1997 Freeman volunteered to pay for the prom, as long as both black and white students could be in attendance. The offer was declined; the separate proms continued.
In a new documentary, filmmaker Paul Saltzman follows Freeman as he attempts, once more, to coax a revolution. And so Prom Night In Mississippi begins, and we're seat-side with Freeman as he steers his dust-covered BMW through the asphalted backwaters of the Mississippi Delta, determined to foot the tab for Charleston High's first integrated senior prom.
"Tradition is one thing," he tells the superintendent of the East Tallahatchie School District. "Idiocy is another." This time around, Charleston High accepts Freeman's offer and Saltzman hurls us into the lives of the senior class as they prepare for what is not just a history-making event in their small town, but another step in the nation's never-ending quest to achieve racial and civil equality: one made more difficult by the fact that the all-white prom isn't canceled.
Tallahatchie County is one of the poorest in the United States; more than 34 per cent of Charleston's inhabitants live below the poverty line. It's a town steeped in the blood of confederacy slave policy, where the hanging of blacks in the town square was an unexceptional event in the early 1900s. A Mississippi State flag, emblazoned with the symbolism-soaked confederate flag, flanks the 'Stars and Stripes' on a flagpole in the center of a town where 60 percent of the inhabitants are black. That percentage is higher at the local high school.
There is something so jarring about a segregated prom in 2008, when the documentary was filmed. It's not as if we're unaware that racism still runs rampant in this country -- between Sotomayor's Supreme Court hearings and newly published photos of a still healthy Ku Klux Klan, you can't avoid it. But there's something about this bastion of segregation at Charleston High that is so loathsome to watch, and perhaps it has something to do with the innocence-of-youth factor; that basically at the end of the day, these young, hopeful black students are told by a white coterie, "Okay, thanks for coming; it was great going to school with you all these years, but as for celebrating this milestone, we don't want to share it with you."
Of course there are some white students who refuse to attend the event. Nonetheless, in that one night, the all-white prom diminishes all those Supreme Court decisions; all the sit-ins and demonstrations; the thirty-years of integrated classes at Charleston High. And that makes the pro-integration students not just endearing, but inspirational. They are candid and funny and many risk their family lives and jobs in their march to end segregation here.
But Prom Night misses the voice of the staunchly pro-segregation whites, and it's those voices we are dying to hear. We hear about their bigotry from their children, and their children's friends, but Saltzman's team was forbidden from going anywhere near them or their all-white gatherings as soon as filming commenced. So, the few white parents we meet in Prom Night are not George Wallace incarnates. Not even close. The racism here is far more simplistic than that. As one mother of a white student explains, "My grandmother always told us we were all put on this earth different, and when we all start integrating there's not going to be anymore individuality... And if that's the way god wanted us he would have made us all the same to start with."
Saltzman equipped all of Prom Night's protagonists -- mainly students -- with personal video devices in the lead-up to prom, which provide some of the most touching moments in the film, as we share unfiltered, intimate and spontaneous confessions with members of the senior class: they are excited about making history, but nervous about what may transpire on the night.
There is a change in tone when the prom finally arrives. After the screening, a friend described it best when she said, "at some point it stopped being a documentary and started being a feature film." It doesn't take away from the message, but I would have liked to see the candid, unidealized texture that characterized the first three quarters of the film, extend until the final frame.
Certainly Prom Night is uplifting, illuminating and enjoyable, enhanced by a thumping R & B/hip hop soundtrack and the unselfconscious musings of the senior class. But how uplifted can you truly be, knowing that the following year, Charleston High School had another all-white prom. Or that Saltzman's film, far from capturing a dying tradition, taps into a new era of educational segregation in this country, with recent reports that conclude the nation's schools are more racially segregated now than at any other time since 1954. Which makes Prom Night in Mississippi that much more important to watch.
Prom Night in Mississippi premiers on HBO tonight at 9 pm.
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