We're Seeing Things

In 1965, Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman was a civil rights worker with SNCC in Mississippi. Two years later, he found himself at an ashram in India with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, which eventually resulted in the 2006 photo book Beatles in India. In 2008, Saltzman returned to Mississippi to direct Prom Night in Mississippi, a documentary film that tells the story of how the separate black and white proms in Charleston, Mississippi became one integrated event.

 

Charleston is a town of 2,100 people on the edge of the Delta, a bit east of Clarksdale. It’s also the hometown of actor Morgan Freeman, who described the segregated proms as “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of…It hurts me deeply.” It was a group of parents, not the students, who kept things separate. Freeman forced the issue and then paid for the integrated prom.

 

While Morgan Freeman is a presence in the film, its real stars are the locals, whom Saltzman effortlessly makes into fascinating characters, from the school principal to the female powerlifting champion who is also the school valedictorian (or is she? another subplot).

 

The film’s colors shimmer, as does the heavy dose of music, a soundtrack to Prom Night’s freewheeling discussion of race, love, and sex. The very successful integrated prom features a DJ, rappers, and a Memphis-style classic soul band.

 

Racial unity in America has always been painted as mostly an effete affair between white liberals and the “talented tenth” of African-Americans. The crossing of racial lines in Charleston is something different. Although the film makes no explicit mention of it, it clearly shows the poverty which grips the town.

 

Even the film’s self-described redneck, a working class dad who is very unhappy that his daughter is dating a black boy, tries in his own stumbling way to explain history and figure a way out of the racial morass.

 

 

Rock & Rap Confidential / 2009