This is the tag line for the documentary Prom Night in Mississippi by Paul Saltzman. The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was also part of Hot Docs here in Toronto. I missed it during Hot Docs but I’m glad that the First Weekend Club presented this film, as part of their Canada Screen Series, this past Tuesday night at the Drake Underground.
The film is the result of Paul Saltzman and wife/co-producer Patricia Aquino’s decision to live in the small town of Charleston, Mississippi for five months. This is also the home of actor Morgan Freeman. In 1997, Freeman offered the Charleston School Board to organize an integrated prom with him paying for all costs… the Board declined the offer. Freeman just could not believe such practices were still taking place in present time; in his home town nonetheless. In 2008, Morgan made his offer again, the board accepted. Here is where the film begins.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the film because I hope you go see it. It definitely makes you think about your own prejudices and the current state of affairs in the States and even here in Canada. The kids interviewed and highlighted in the film are very mature and understand the extent of racism in their town. Most of them want to have the integrated prom as they’ve all been going to school together since very young… They don’t see the point of keeping separate, Black and White proms. Really, we are in a new century!
Like a friend of mine, I found interesting to hear a father, a self-proclaimed “redneck,” explain why he did not feel comfortable with his daughter dating a young black man. He says, “My grandfather was brought up that way; my daddy was brought up that way; I was brought up that way…. I know it’s selfish and I hope in college they stop seeing each other. But I love my daughter a lot; if she chooses to keep seeing this boy, I won’t abandon her.” You know that he knows it’s wrong to be racist but that’s all he’s known his whole life… It was good to hear his point of view.
Another person that stood out for me was a young man by the name of “Billy Joe”… he didn’t want to be identified. He comes from a white family and disagrees with their attitudes and behaviours towards black people. He wishes things were different. You can tell he’s at odds with and will probably be hard for him to change things… A difficult place to be in these current times. Once we get to the prom, though, it’s nothing but good times. You feel the excitement that the students are feeling; a sense of pride.
After the film screened, Richard Crouse moderated a Q&A session with director Paul Saltzman and Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society (pictured right). It was an interesting discussion… Crouse mentioned how he liked that you felt a connection with the people in the film. He asked Ms. Sadlier what her experience was having seen this film with an audience, her 17 year old son. She mentioned her son could not believe segregation was still a part of some places in the US. Sadlier said, this film is a “slice of life” in a small town but we can all think of place where racism still takes place. Saltzman also described what it was like to see this film with the people of Charleston… It went really well; the auditorium was filled past capacity. At the end, we heard loud clapping and cheers. Every screening has received very positive feedback. Crouse asked both Sadlier and Saltzman what they hoped people would take away from the film. Sadlier said, remember this is a slice of life. Think of how things can change and how you can be part of that change. Saltzman said, he hopes the film makes you look within yourself and acknowledge your own judgments and prejudices. If the film bring something to light that you can change, then, he’s happy.