Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Prom Night In Mississippi

How old are you?

Did you go to your High School Prom?

Was it integrated?

I'd imagine that last one to come across as sort of a joke question -- is it integrated??? do you mean like cavemen and dinosaurs? these are the jokes people -- But for Charleston High School in Mississippi, it's a legitimate query. They just had their first "integrated" prom a couple years ago. The story of it serving as the old world grist for Paul Saltzman documentary "Prom Night In Mississippi".

Here's some pub copy on it:

The film deftly weaves together student-made videos, interviews, and fly-on-the-wall moments with scenes of school officials, parents and Morgan Freeman himself, as white and black members of the Charleston senior class work together to organize the groundbreaking dance. While students prepare for the big day, seemingly inconsequential rites of passage suddenly become profound as the weight of history falls on teenage shoulders. We quickly learn that change does not come easily in this sleepy Delta town, as Freeman’s generosity ends up fanning flames of racism among several generations of Charleston residents.

And a video clip:

Some thoughts:

1.Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus. These people are from The South:
The reason to watch the film is to get a little glimpse of this small Southern town, and see how anachronistic it is. Like going to the Museum of Natural History and the dinosaurs are casually talking about their lives of swamps and eating each other. It's interesting, but you can't truly relate/empathize/connect to something living behind a glass wall. It's like: hello, Mr. T-Rex, i don't want to be a dinosaur-chauvinist hater or anything, but y'all might want to step outside the museum. realize no one complains about the swarming pterodactyls anymore. Go on the internet. meet new friends. Like that, but y'know, with real people involved.

The whole story is Morgan Freeman paying for the school's prom to take the burden off the tradition of separate proms at this school. But some of the people - parents! - still organized their own White Only prom. Which they did not allow the filmmakers to get footage of. Which was supposedly attended by 30 people or so. So i don't know, if they started a facebook group "White Only: Dancing and Hanging Out, for one night", you'd prob get like 30-40 people. Maybe the same people. Actually, definitely not the same people. I guarantee those people are going to be opening their free sample AOL test DVD in a few months from now. Facebook eta circa 2014.

I'm being mean, but I'm sorry, I do not understand the South. Baldwin wrote in essays about how he changed as a writer, as a black man, after visiting the south. Eddie Murphy joked, "don't go down to texas, they'll f you up". I can't front, I'm a little scared of it; you either get changed, or f'd up/dead.

I just wonder if it will in fact be a matter of time, and these were cavemen times. Or if there is something in the DNA, the genetic makeup of the geographical culture, or somesuch.

2. Generation Gap: The kids are a lot more sane. When I think about the kids, I don't think the DNA issue is a question. Then again, a lot of the crazier thinking people in the film, or alluded to in the film, did not actually get face-time. It's telling to something that the more backwards thinking folk are not oblivious, feel some sense of shame or embarrassment. They're not young Israelis boldly pushing their drunken shimmering worldview. They prefer to pop their racist zits in private.

Mostly the kids seemed annoyed, frustrated by the parents. But still respecting them, in most cases. Which then feels like "nothing to see here", and probably deflates some of the dramatic tension in the film. Watching Paint Dry have you met Town Watching/Waiting For Olds To Die,... that sort of thing. The kids are cute, not weird, aside from general high school age weirdness, and definitely not the problem.

3. Driving Mr. Freeman: The doc starts off with Morgan Freeman talking about growing up in the town. And the tradition. And how it was stupid, etc. And how we was going to propose to get involved. Which he did. The thing is once the kids are diagnosed as normal kids, he's kind of the star/engine of the film. But once he gets the ball rolling, that's all we get from him. There's a meeting in the auditorium when Shawshank Redemption talks to everyone and tells them what he wants to do. All the kids are treating him like he's Will Smith instead of Morgan Freeman. But he doesn't turn the Will Smith on. There's a stunted emotional investment that begins to emanate from him. Maybe it's just how things worked out, but it could/should have probably been more a little more autobiographical. Or at least Freeman giving more context and background to the town history. Helping us understand The Aliens from The South. But he mostly becomes the hollywood name that gets the film through the process. It's a little disappointing.

All in all I'd say, if you want to go to the museum, but from the comfort of your home. Check it out. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than looking at old people and normal people behind the glass.

Prom Night in Mississippi website

Jena 6: From the Noose to the Red Carpet


  1. the whole thing felt like a 20/20 treatment.
    Cultural voyeurism doesn't justify a 90 minute documentary.

  2. The South: even a caveman can do it

    i think i needed to add that.

  3. Anonymous7/29/2009

    you know, TAN, I feel like you're overdoing the distancing here. I mean, I get it, segregated proms and out in the open racists are *so* in the margins and "we" (defined broadly) are the center, the mainstream. but this is still our country -- these people, as we saw in the last election, still do vote, and participate in the political discussion (even if they're all dying off), and still raise kids and grandkids... Why are you hitting the "anachronism" angle so hard? What about the continuity?
    You truly believe this is totally irrelevant, except as a matter of historical record/as a sideshow?

  4. Anonymous7/29/2009

    The picture: a whole bunch of black folks with a white girl on center stage. Perfect for this blog!

  5. Anonymous7/29/2009

    second thought (I'm on a the phone with a frienemy who's going on and on): maybe this stuff matters not because of its continuity with now/the future but as a closure issue for the older folks -- ...I remember hearing an interview about this on late evening interview show, and yeah. The host was like in his 60s, and went to a segregated prom himself... without 'the culture' processing it, it leaves more hangover...

  6. i don't know if all the Anons are the same here, but ...

    1. I do flinch at the distancing. the lack of humanity. then again, much of the 90 minutes is filled with a deep internalized processed hatred of *other*. people like me. people who are culturally different. there's a fair amount of distancing stuff that even the people who are normal have to take and accept. so i think they started it.

    it does in many ways reflect the whole *race problem*. i have an impulse to be childish. a willful disregard of the maturity expected of me because, who, exactly, has lived up to the standard i could theoretically live up to myself.

    the race problem now isn't about the actual abuse, it's about the posttrauma. how do you move on when you've been hurt so deeply? how do you manifest moving on without also showing awareness, and letting people see the wound, and how you've had to deal with it.

    2. the picture. this is a publicity picture. there's another picture with all black people in it, that wouldn't have been accurate. the town itself, i believe, is like 70% black, but the black people are the ones who are powerless. or act like it.

    3. the closure thing. i don't know. again, to me, it's behind this glass wall. maybe the dinosaur deals in terms of closure. i do think they need to hear and face the reality of what their sensibility/perspective means in the *real world*. racism, as they know it, and practice it, will be a dinosaur.

  7. hey. I'm French and I'm so astonished about the all segregate prom situation, especially when the kids spontaneously admit that they have never dated one from the other "race" and they don't even know why. But is it really such a South "specialty"? At the end, how can you blame them when we NEVER see a mixed couple in a movie or in a tv show??? when the black guy ALWAYS dates or is married to a black girl? maybe if it was a more common situation, they wouldn't have to wonder if they can have a black/white partner, it wouldn't be an issue at all...
    so I would rather say that not only cavemne South but the whole country has not solved the "race" issue...


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