There are 415 students at Charleston High School. 70% are black. 30% are white. Until 2008, the school board was clinging to the last vestige of segregation: separate proms for black students and white students. When Charleston native Morgan Freeman discovered this in 1997, he offered to pay for the prom, but only if it was integrated. His offer was ignored. Eleven years later, Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman approached him about making the proposal again, saying that he would make a documentary about it.
This time, whether because faculty had changed or because cameras were present, the board took Freeman up on his offer. Charleston High’s principal, Bucky Smith, asks Mr. Freeman if he’ll address the senior class and make sure that this is what they want. In a completely charming scene, Freeman does just that, and it is made very clear that for whatever reason the prom has remained segregated all these years, it is not because the students want it so. When Freeman makes the offer, almost all of the students say yes immediately, nodding their heads in approval. One girl asks Freeman, “What’s our limit?” “$200,” he says, and the kids crack up.
Of course, there are some problems. Not all of the kids are okay with the idea, and many of the parents aren’t either. Prom Night in Mississippi is an eye-opening documentary, revealing much about the racial progress America still has to make. I always like to think that we’re beyond such attitudes, at least so much so that blacks and whites can attend the same prom. A film like this is a splash of cold water, a reminder that we’ve still got a lot of growing up to do. The black kids and the white kids at Charleston High seem to get along just fine, despite some racial notions ingrained by their parents. They go to school together every day, after all, so why do there have to be separate proms?
Charleston, Mississippi remains beholden to practices of a bygone age. In a deleted scene, it is revealed that corporal punishment is still used at the high school, and before prom, the students and chaperones pray together. Black students admit that though they’re friends with whites, they don’t often visit their houses because it might be awkward, and vice versa. As such, there are hardly any interracial couples. Luckily, Saltzman was able to follow one, Cecily and Jeremy. Cecily is a white girl, Jeremy is a black boy. They’ve never gone on a date together because Cecily’s father won’t allow it. I can only imagine what would happen if Jeremy invited them over for dinner.
Cecily’s father speaks to the camera about how he disagrees with mixed relationships, and that as long as his daughter is under his roof, she’ll have to play by his rules. And even though he hopes that when Cecily and Jeremy go off to college they’ll drift apart, he says that he loves his daughter so much he won’t ostracize her for it. Which is good, because the kids say on camera that they hope to get married and have children. Cecily’s father is pitiable, in a way: he talks about how his parents and grandparents were born racists, but that he doesn’t consider himself one. It’s just that he objects to blacks dating whites. Asked by the filmmakers why they haven’t dated kids of the opposite race, most of the students don’t know–they just haven’t. The racial barriers are painfully real, but they’re almost invisible.
Not so invisible, though, is the fact that even with the integrated prom going forward, a select group of white parents decide that they’re going to hold the whites-only prom anyway. I don’t even understand how such a thing is legal, let alone how it’s being held at the Army National Guard base (where Saltzman’s cameras are turned away). The integrated prom, though, the real one, is a joyous occasion. There’s a video introduction by Morgan Freeman. Kids of both races get together to dance. Cecily and Jeremy are greeted with a standing ovation. A white rock band plays, and then a group of black rappers. It’s a night of historic importance, and everyone seems to be having the time of their lives.