This powerful documentary was produced in the spring of 2008, exactly one year ago, before the historic election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. I think in terms of race relations everything will be measured as either happening before or after that election.
Of course, it was after Obama's election that his appointed lawyer, Eric Holder, the nation's first African-American Attorney General, made his controversial statement about the "nation of cowards." He said that, outside of mandatory social institutions, Americans are still somewhat segregated.
One would think, in the wake of Obama's election, this would be a ridiculous statement. Racism and consequently race relations could not be any better. As this film indicates, we are more than 50 years from the Brown Vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which effectively ended school segregation, and by proxy segregation everywhere. Despite the studies of Beverly Daniel Tatum and the recent Jena Six incident in Louisiana, people persist with the idea that race relations are fine.
This documentary is proof that race relations aren't and that perhaps there's a little bit of truth in Holder's statement. Filmmaker Paul Saltzman follows Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman as he journeys to his hometown of Charleston, Mississippi, to right a wrong that has been going on for 30 years. Freeman shows us that to this day Charleston High School still holds segregated proms.
Proms are those formal, school dances where juniors and seniors attend in the spring as a rite of passage. Most high schools hold one in April or May and all the seniors attend with their dates or friends all dressed up in formal gowns and tuxedos.
Except in Charleston, they have not one but two proms. One is for white students only and the other is for black students only. Yes, you read correctly. Segregation is still practiced in Mississippi. This isn't something the kids decided. This is actual school policy, a school policy active and effective in 2008 to segregate students by race.
Freeman calls it stupid, and he's correct. It is stupid for any organization, most especially a school in this day and age, to have a segregated anything, let alone a prom. It's inherently racist and plus its not cost-beneficial to hold two divided proms.
Freeman decides to go to that school to propose that it changes its policy and have one integrated prom, Charleston's first integrated prom. Freeman goes to the school board to talk to them. He then goes to the students who'll be attending the prom. What he discovers is the students don't oppose the idea. They embrace it. The ones who oppose are parents.
Saltzman even interviews some of these parents. One in particular speaks candidly about his fear of his white daughter dating a black teenager, the so-called jungle fever. The testimonies from other teenagers reveal the racism of the adults raising them. Some even blatantly say the word nigger.
The rest of the documentary shows the students preparing for the upcoming integrated prom. What Saltzman does is cleverly cuts together scenes where we see and recognize the level of comedy to the conversations of the adults about things such as safety. Saltzman brilliantly shines a light on the ridiculousness of the racism still lingering in the southern town of Charleston, MS.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival on January 15, 2009, and playing at Dover's Hearts and Minds Film Festival, this film will later be distributed by Emerging Pictures and its network of cinemas, including Theatre N in Delaware and the Charles Theatre in Maryland. For more information, you can go to:
Five Stars out of Five
Unrated but recommended for those 13 and older
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.