Reviews

Paul Saltzman

USA, 2008

Credits

Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 29 June 2009

Source 35mm print

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Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston

The immediately stunning thing about director Paul Saltzman’s documentary Prom Night in Mississippi, a chronicle of Charleston High School’s first interracial prom, is that the events in the film take place last year. While Charleston High School itself was integrated in 1970 (lagging behind Brown v. Board of Education by more than a decade and a half), separate “black” and “white” proms persisted at the school into the twenty-first century. Saltzman’s story picks up with the Charleston High School students accepting an offer from Morgan Freeman, a Charleston resident, to fund the 2008 prom if, and only if, it is integrated. (Freeman made a similar offer in 1997 and was ignored.) The resulting reactions of the students, administrators, and parents in Charleston are gripping and sometimes painful to watch.

There are the skittish ones, parents and administrators who make waffling comments about the safety of the students rather than committing to making a change to the town’s euphemistically referred to “tradition” of separate proms. And there are those that are unshakable in their racism, going so far as to organize a “White Prom” independently of the high school and offering to pay expenses for students to attend this small, sad affair in lieu of the official prom. (The most passionate members of the opposition don’t appear on camera, but their influence is felt throughout.) One of the film’s most revealing interviews is with Glenn Sumner, a parent who voices his disapproval of his daughter Heather’s longtime relationship with Jeremy, a black classmate. Sumner does not want to be identified as racist, and accepts that his daughter will make her own decisions about who she will and will not date, but he also voices fears about the consequences of her relationship that sound as if they were passed on to him from his own parents. His comments seem to reflect the deeply ingrained (if irrational) anxieties of the larger community. Many of the students, for their part, are more receptive to the integrated prom than their elders are, and despite their struggles en route to prom night, their attitudes generally bode well for better future.

My criticisms of Prom Night in Mississippi can only be of the mildest sort. It is true that Saltzman doesn’t pull many unexpected punches in assembling his first feature, delivering, as Film Threat’s Scott Knopf puts it, a film that’s “good—but it’s pretty much exactly what you’d think it would be,” but Prom Night in Mississippi tells a powerful story with clarity and intelligence, and that’s enough to make it a worthwhile document. It’s pretty rare that I get choked up watching a bunch of teenagers sway to Vitamin C’s “Graduation (Friends Forever),” but it did the trick here.

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