Tuxes, Tiaras and Tolerance: 'Prom Night in Mississippi' Explores a Historic Evening

In the Deep South, some traditions die hard, and in Charleston, Mississippi, the longstanding tradition of segregated proms-a tradition steeped in the troublesome history of the region-has died the hardest. It took actor and Charleston resident Morgan Freeman's offer to underwrite the town's first integrated prom-he had made a similar offer ten years before, but it was turned down-to get the town to come around. And even so, the groundbreaking event--40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and months away from the history-making election of Barack
Obama--didn't happen without staunch resistance from some quarters. The resulting documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi, from Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman, airs on HBO this month and next month.

Saltzman had journeyed to Mississippi before-in the mid-1960s during the civil rights movement as a volunteer worker with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He spent ten days in jail with other civil rights workers, and was chased by a trio of Klansmen--one of whom, the son of
Byron De La Beckwith, the convicted murderer of activist Medgar Evers, punched Saltzman in the head. Decades later, the filmmaker received a call from journalist Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson
Clarion Ledger;
the records of the Mississippi Sovereign Commission had just been released and Saltzman's name was among the many who had been imprisoned during the civil rights movement. It was that phone call and interview that inspired him to go to Mississippi himself and see how much had changed.

"When I first went back, I had no thought of making a film," Saltzman recalls. "I just drove around and went to the Delta, where I had done my civil rights work. I knew what Mississippi had been like long ago. I'd read that it was much improved in the field of race relations, but I didn't really have expectations. When I'd spent a day with Morgan Freeman through a mutual friend, I thought, There's so much that Morgan is saying and that others are saying that would be very good to pass on to others--which has pretty much been my motivation in filmmaking from the very beginning. What has always had resonance and meaning for me was passing along stories that gave others courage."

When he went back to Canada, he was determined to return to Mississippi--and he convinced his wife and producing partner, Patricia Aquino,  that they should make a film, with their own money. And that's when the forerunner to Prom Night in Mississippi, Return to Mississippi, was born.

"My goal in Return to Mississippi was to simply explore race relations and share that with others," Saltzman maintains. "I had heard that Mississippi had changed enormously, that it had the highest per capita black elected officials, police chiefs and fire chiefs in the US--and it still had 21 registered hate groups. My lack of an agenda was
the only way I wanted to do it--to find people and let them speak for themselves and edit that in a manner that did not change the weight of their sharing their intimacy."

Nonetheless, the journeys to Mississippi did yield surprises for Saltman-mainly, that, to paraphrase Faulkner, the past was not necessarily past. "I was most surprised by how some people hold on to racist beliefs far beyond their usefulness or truthfulness, and how embattled extremism is," he observes.

When Saltzman and Aquino were filming Return to Mississippi, he had hired two researchers--one black and one white, in order to gain entrée into both communities, since they were still so separated. The researchers told him that there had been segregated proms in high
schools in Mississippi as recently as five years ago, so he had them find out if that was still the
case today. Nothing came up. Saltzman and Aquino flew back to Canada, and the minute they got home, they got a call from one of the researchers; she had found a high school in Charleston that still had a segregated prom. And Morgan Freeman had offered to pay for an integrated one in
1997 and was turned down.

"The next morning I phoned Morgan, and asked if the offer was true," Saltzman relates. "And he said yes. Then I said to him, Is the offer still good? There was this wonderful pause and he said, ‘Oh!...OK!'"

Freeman put the offer back on the table, and this time the school board approved the first school-sponsored integrated prom (Although the school had been integrated since 1970, the proms, not sponsored by the school, had been segregated.). And so began Prom Night in Mississippi.

 

From Prom Night in Mississippi. Photo:(c) Catherine Farquharson/Paul Saltzman

 

 

Saltzman met with the school board--comprised of three whites and two blacks--to secure their permission. "Their biggest concern was, Was I going to ridicule them? Was I going to shame them? I said that my intention was truly to let people speak for themselves and to honor the weight of their words and not edit to increase drama or conflict or discord. One women, black, said, ‘Yes,
but even if we feel comfortable with that, we have no control over what you'll edit. How do we trust you?' I said, ‘My intention is to let people speak for themselves [about] at race relations today in Mississippi and in Charleston and through the prom, for the purpose of people-- especially young people--seeing it and therefore considering their own attitudes, beliefs and prejudices.'"

For a documentary filmmaker, an issue as volatile as race relations takes a lot of diplomacy and patience in gaining the trust of and access to those who would most impact your film. Saltzman and Aquino rented a house outside Charleston for five months, and one of their researchers, Thabi Moyo, moved in with them from Jackson. They let everyone know they'd be filming every day, and they made their presence felt in the community. And they made clear their intentions--that they were interested in hearing from the people of Charleston their thoughts about race relations, about the integrated prom and about segrated proms. Over time, it was the high school students who first came to trust the filmmakers; in return, Saltzman and Aquino offered to teach them filmmaking workshops. Of the 415 students, twelve eventually took the course. These students also made video diaries, some of which ended up in the film.

The parents proved to be the most difficult from whom to secure participation and cooperation. Many of the white parents, in fact, were so opposed to the integrated prom that they staged their own whites-only prom-and would not meet with the filmmakers, even off-camera. They went as far as
securing a lawyer, who himself agreed to appear on camera stating that his clients would not talk out of fear of being branded as bigots or racists or hypocrites--"which of course was the whole reason for giving the interview," says Saltzman. "And by their lawyer saying it, the point was made. We would have preferred to just have a conversation."

One white parent who did agree to talk to Saltzman off-camera had a daughter who was in an interracial relationship. "About 15 minutes into the conversation, I said, ‘You have to let me film you. There are parents who disagree with what their kids are doing and often parents will withdraw their love or punish their kids, but what you're saying is so beautiful. Even though you're completely opposed to her interracial dating, you love her very much and you won't abandon her. You have to let me film this so other parents will hear this.' He said OK. He just moved me so much that his love for his daughter is stronger than his racial beliefs."

 

 

Jeremy Reid and Heather Sumner, the only interracial couple at Charleston High School. From Prom Night in Mississippi. Photo: (c) Catherine Farquharson/Paul Saltzman

Although Saltzman's presence in Charleston was off-putting to some, for most key participants the film project was a blessing in starting a conversation that had been sublimated for so long. The school principal, who was white, approached the school superintendent, who was black, about the fact that though they'd been friends for 20 years, they'd never once talked about race. The principal credited the film for helping him to initiate that dialogue. "Can you imagine the black chairman of the school board and the white principal of the high school in a divided southern town going 20 years without talking about race?" Saltman comments. "You think they'd be doing it every week. This is not to denigrate them, This is the tradition of, ‘Let's not rock the boat, we're
getting along OK; the past was horrendous, but things are way better now...' But that doesn't mean a deeper healing was happening."

One of the students, Billy Joe, was adamantly opposed to appearing on camera, and resisted Saltzman's overtures for months--right up to a week before the prom. He finally relented, agreeing to appear in shadow with his voice disguised. As a result, what he shares are the most eloquent and
insightful observations about race and race relations in the entire film. "He was very frightened and concerned about being disowned," Saltzman recalls. "And at the same time he did want to share his own heart and soul with us about these things he felt very strongly about--that he disagreed with in the traditions in that part of the white community that maintained their racism. He gave us a real gift."

Prom Night in Mississippi airs this month and next on HBO and HBO2, and the outreach efforts in conjunction with the film are extensive. Saltzman and Aquino worked with HBO and the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to develop a 42-page study guide, which both HBO and SPLC are promoting their respective websites. For the Prom Night in
Mississippi
website, says Saltzman, "We want it to be a meeting place for young people to talk about race relations, And we're keen to reach out to teachers and students and parents for the purpose of social change. We want there to be a positive impact for social change through the example of what the kids and parents in Charleston, Mississippi did with their integrated prom."

 

From Prom Night in Mississippi. Photo: (c) Catherine Farquharson/Paul Saltzman.

 

 

And what about Return to Mississippi, the project that spawned Prom Night? As Saltzman and Aquino gear up for revisiting that project, did Prom Night make them rethink what they had initially wanted to achieve? "Not really, except in one sense--in the interim, Barack Obama got elected," Saltzman notes. "We had finished filming Return in September. We did film one of his rallies in Jackson after that, and I do want to do an extra week of shooting in Mississippi to go back and explore how the election has impacted race relations there. Of course, it's a huge impact--whether its societal or not will take time, but Thabi [Moyo, associate producer and researcher] said to us that she and her black friends just burst into tears She said it felt like a healing that was centuries in the coming--that national recognition that, as obvious as it may be, to be black is not to be inferior."

 

For more information:

Prom Night in Mississippi website
Prom Night in Mississippi Study Guide
Southern Poverty Law Center
HBO

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.