“Prom Night in Mississippi” screens at Sundance

 
 

Movies that make it to Sundance have a pretty decent chance of picking up a distributor, so I’m assuming that the documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi, will likely make it into theaters. When that happens, I suspect a number of moviegoers will be in for a surprise.

Some may not read the title carefully enough and believe they’re going to see this.

Others might expect to see the original Jamie Lee Curtis classic.

But even those not expecting a slasher movie about high school students stalked and massacred at the prom may still be in for a big surprise — because the documentary is about the first racially integrated prom at Charleston High School. In 2008.

Charleston, Miss. has a troubled racial history that includes lynching, Klan activity and schools that remained segregated long after segregation was ruled unconstitutional. However, when they finally integrated the schools, they did not integrate the proms — so every year there were two. (Which begs the question of what that meant for multiracial students — or Asian, Latino, etc. students, for that matter!)

Not everybody agreed this was the way to go. Charleston native, Morgan Freeman, thought this was “the stupidest thing [he’d] ever heard,” and, in 1997, offered to pay for a racially integrated prom. Eleven years later (11 years!), under the watchful eye of a documentary filmmaker, the school board and community finally took Freeman up on his offer — and black and white students danced together as uneventfully as they do at pretty much every other prom in the United States. (Think Footloose meets Crisis at Central High.)

Of course, a bunch of hold-outs — some of whom opposed an integrated prom due to fears of violence by African American students — threw a smaller “whites-only” prom where, ironically, a fight broke out between white students. (Is it bad to be amused by this?)

Does the 54 year gap between court-mandated desegregation and an integrated prom seem as odd to others as it does to me? I don’t believe I’m naïve about the prevalence of racial tensions or violence — or de facto segregation for that matter. But how did nobody sue? And who turns down an offer from Morgan Freeman to pay for the prom?

More than anything, though, it makes me sad to realize how deeply resistant communities can be to change. If it takes until 2008 for a small town to accept black and white students dancing together at the prom, how long is it going to take for it to be OK for a high school girl to take her girlfriend to the prom? Or even to just come out safely?

 
 

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