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Prom Night in Mississippi Continues on Fest Circuit, next up Atlanta…

April 10, 2009

Since Prom Night in Mississippi continues to make its rounds on the festival circuit, recently playing Crossroads Film Festival and continuining on this month to Atlanta Film Festival, and then On Location: Memphis, I decided to post my story that ran during the Oxford Film Festival in February).

promnightinmississippi3

By Melanie Addington
Staff Writer

(First ran in the Oxford Eagle on February 6, 2009)

For Andy Smith the experience of being part of history paled in comparison to the fact that he now gets to tell people he was in a movie with Morgan Freeman. Now a freshman biology major at the University of Mississippi, Smith plays a major role in “Prom Night in Mississippi,” the documentary about Charleston High School’s first integrated prom in May 2008.

The movie has its Mississippi premiere tonight at the Malco as part of the Oxford Film Festival after having a world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Director Paul Saltzman was in Mississippi filming for another movie in 2007 when the story idea came up. He hired two researchers from Jackson to find schools in Mississippi that still have segregated proms. Thabi Moyo, one of the two researchers, was having trouble finding information. The day Saltzman and producer and wife Patricia Aquino left to return home to Canada, Morrow stopped at a gas station she had never been to before and talked to the woman behind the counter. Turns out the employee was a student at Charleston High School and told Moyo about her school proms. She also noted that Morgan Freeman had offered to pay for the black and white proms to be integrated.

Moyo called Saltzman and he then called Freeman. Turns out the offer had been made 10 years prior.

“It was a matter of serendipity,” Saltzman said. “I called Morgan and asked, is this true. Morgan said yes, ten years ago.”
Saltzman asked him if the offer still stood. Morgan paused for a moment and then said yes.

But before filming could begin, Freeman and Saltzman had to go to the school board to get approval. On Dec. 13, 2007 Saltzman flew back down to Mississippi.

“Their concern was who am I and what are my intentions,” Saltzman said. “I reassured them I am not there to make them look bad, not to shame them, rather just to find out by asking people their feelings.”

At the time Andy Smith was a senior at the high school. Smith heard about the documentary before Morgan Freeman came to the school and talked with the senior class. Permission slips were handed out before filming and the students who were allowed to be on camera got to work on the film during the entire spring semester.

Director Paul Saltzman got students to help with the films by creating their own video diaries.

“I did lighting and learned how to get angles on cameras. We [those who helped] were also featured in the movie more,” Smith said.

For Smith, getting to know Saltzman helped him open up on camera.

“It was kind of awkward at first, but I am a talkative person and am fine once I get used to talking to someone. I was basically talking to Paul and there happened to be a camera,” Smith said.

Although he has yet to see the film, he is looking forward to tonight’s premiere to see what footage remains from the footage caught on tape.

Finding the story within the footage

Having worked in news, Saltzman knew that sometimes when seeking out a story there is a sense of wanting a certain outcome. That was not what he wanted for the documentary. He and Aquino moved to Charleston and lived in the community for four and a half months while working.

“It worked out just the way we wanted to. Those people that came to trust us talked to us openly. They saw we were not out to grind any axes,” Saltzman said.

Not everyone chose to be on camera though. The parents that hosted a competing white-only prom refused to speak to the camera crew. Saltzman referred to the attorney for the parents as having the best answer as to why. On camera the lawyer stated that they choose to not be put on camera due to not wanting to be portrayed as racists. One of the white students, Billy Joe, who attended the white prom also notes on screen that they know they are racist but don’t want to be seen that way because maybe inside of them there is a part that knows it is wrong.

“Prom Night in Mississippi” follows the lives of these students as they head towards their senior prom. Throughout the semester, students, parents and administrators talked on camera reflecting on the event. Most are brutally honest and examine their own prejudices and experiences.

“I didn’t have any expectations going into it in any sort of specific sense except the way I approached the film was to ask myself to be open to receiving whatever the thoughts and feelings of the people I interviewed,” Saltzman said.

The move to Mississippi was a return for Saltzman. He had first been here as a civil rights worker in the 1960’s, in fact, the homecoming was a topic of his other film that was put on held when the prom night story emerged.

“This story moved me and because without question there isn’t a person on the planet with some prejudice big and small,” Saltzman said.

After the Oxford Film Festival, Saltzman intends to return home to Canada to begin editing the Return To Mississippi footage.

“This is a personal journey film. Having been a civil rights worker, I returned to see how things have changed or not changed.”

For Prom Night, editing took six months working with three editors to cut down the over 165 hours of footage.

“We very much did it in a way that would get to the heart of the matter without being unfair to anyone, Saltzman said. “I hope to have people think about their own attitudes without a superior attitude.”

At the Sundance premiere, audiences responded exactly as planned. At film festivals, a question and answer period occurs after the screening. Usually the discussion lasts 10 to 15 minutes or less. When Saltzman’s film ended at 11:15 p.m. at Sundance he had to finally stop taking questions at midnight. But out in the lobby audience members continued to talk with him about their response to the film.

“We truly wanted to put something out there that generates self-reflection,” Saltzman said.
Sherika Bradford, also an Ole Miss student, graduated from Charleston High School in 2006 and said the prom integration was long overdue.

“I am very proud of those students for getting done what others should have been done and what class of 2006 tried to do,”Bradford said. “I’m glad they had the support and resources they needed. I think it was a start in bringing people together and changing their outlook on things.”

But Bradford pointed out that at Charleston High School things are not as black and white as they appear.

“CHS has a variety of students not just black and white and they have been in school together since kindergarten so why separate them now from prom. I believe that same thought ponders a lot of them but they are afraid to ask why.”
She offered that if some families want a white only prom, then they should send their children to attend a school that is not as integrated. Charleston High School is 30% white and 70% black.

“Separation only leads to more conflict. I think from now there should only be one prom at CHS,” Bradford said. “The schools that aren’t integrated need to be because they have to deal with every race and ethnic group when they get in the real world.”
“Charleston has always been integrated,” Smith said. “We just never had the school sanctioned prom. Blacks could get in to the white prom if they wanted to and some white students went to the black prom.”
As for whether things have changed for good or not in Charleston, we will have to wait until May to find out.

“As far as I know, a lot of my friends are going to the interracial prom this year,” Smith said.

– melanie@oxfordeagle.com

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