Prom Night at the Varsity Cinemas
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Prom Night at the Varsity Cinemas

Producer Patricia Aquino, Morgan Freeman, and writer/director Paul Saltzman. Photo by Jen Arron.

Last Friday brought together Toronto filmmaker Paul Saltzman, producer Patricia Aquino, Academy Award–winning actor Morgan Freeman, and members of the city’s most well-to-do families at the Varsity Cinemas for a “VIP Screening” of Prom Night in Mississippi, Saltzman’s feature-length documentary chronicling the efforts of a Charleston high school hosting their first “integrated prom.”

Freeman, a Charleston native, had offered to fund an integrated prom when he first found out that white and black seniors were barred from slow-dancing together, back in 1997. The school board initially refused the offer, citing concerns from parents, the possibility of racial violence, and other bureaucratic red tape as the reason for the racially divided rite of passage. But when Freeman made another offer in 2008, on the cusp of Obama’s America, the school board changed their tune. (It probably helped that the second time around, Saltzman and his crew were there recording the whole thing.) Freeman’s endeavour to unite Charleston High School’s senior class is unquestionably forward thinking, and reflects the actor’s consistent advocacy for a post-racial America (he publicly supported Obama, but he’s an outspoken critic of Black History Month, believing that black history is one and the same as American history). What’s more difficult to praise is Saltzman’s film.
As a feature documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi is a disappointment. It unfolds as ninety minutes of preaching to the converted, with the Charleston youth unanimously agreeing that racial segregation is an outmoded institution, a dusty relic of pre-Civil Rights America. Like teenagers blaring punk music in defiance of their parents’ Chicago records, many of these kids see racism as old-fashioned, and decry their prevailing adults’ attitudes towards segregation and miscegenation. Then again, as Freeman notes after the screening, “children are encouraged to go against the status quo.” Nevertheless, while their outlook is refreshing, it comes at the expense of any real discourse.

Photo by Catherine Farquarson.

For a film set in what is presented as one of America’s last remaining holdouts of racial discrimination, there’s very little resembling actual racism here. When a group of parents, upset by the high school’s mixed prom, decide to host a whites-only prom for their children, they refuse to appear on camera (in a fairly telling scene, a lawyer representing these families expresses their shared concern about appearing racist). The exception is the father of a white teenage girl who is dating a black classmate. Though ostensibly every bit the redneck stereotype (he’s even self-conscious enough to acknowledge himself as such), he defies the stereotype of a Bible-belt bigot, stating that he will always love his daughter, even if she chooses to live in a manner that fundamentally clashes with his own upbringing and belief system. In the post-screening Q&A, Saltzman described this man as “one of his heroes” in the film. He’s also about the only character to escape one-dimensional representation. The rest of the time we have a cast of characters—the white kid on the otherwise all-black basketball team, the stern-yet-compassionate principal, the token mixed-race couple—who belt out Saltzman’s sermon regarding racism’s folly with all the delicacy of an Ayn Rand novel.
But Salztman’s message, heavy-handed though it may have been, struck a chord with the audience. Members of the nearly sold-out crowd variously trumped up the film as “brave” and “important,” flattering the efforts of both Saltzman and his Oscar-winning guest of honour. But there was a sinister echo in all the applause and scattered standing ovations that followed the screening. The overwhelmingly warm reception seemed to reflect less a shared appreciation of the film’s merits and more a theatre of wealthy, liberal, and mostly white elites celebrating their own enlightened attitudes towards racism.
Indeed, the whole event seemed wildly self-congratulatory, for both the filmmakers and the spectators who paid one hundred dollars per head to attend the screening. Watching the designer-dressed ticketholders trot down a red carpet ceremoniously laid out in the Varsity lobby, smiling widely for a photographer hired to snap photos, seemed an unknowingly ironic inversion of the more modest gala seen at the climax of Prom Night.

Ultimately, Prom Night in Mississippi is a difficult proposition. It’s tricky to evaluate a film noble in intention that is so clumsily executed. It’s the worst kind of documentary filmmaking in that it’s telling you what to think instead of stimulating independent thought. As such, it’s unlikely to change any prevailing attitudes towards racism amongst adults habituated to their own ways of thinking, but considering Saltzman’s pedagogical aim—the one-hundred-dollar ticket price for the event subsidized educational DVD packages to be screened in schools, both in the U.S. and Canada—it may encourage children and teenagers to break the cycle of discrimination.
At the very least, Freeman’s gesture has changed the lives of children growing up in Charleston. When asked if the high school has continued the tradition of a mixed prom into 2009, Freeman nodded and laughed, “They wanted me to fund it!”