Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman follows students, teachers, and parents in the lead-up to the big day. Morgan Freeman addresses the student body. Girls shop for dresses and get their hair done. Boys rent tuxedoes and buy corsages. These seemingly inconsequential rites of passage suddenly become profound as the weight of history falls on teenage shoulders.
In 1997, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for the senior prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi under one condition: the prom had to be racially integrated. His offer was ignored. In 2008, Freeman offered again. This time the school board accepted, and history was made. Charleston High School had its first-ever integrated prom - in 2008. Until then, blacks and whites had had separate proms even though their classrooms have been integrated for decades. Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman follows students, teachers and parents in the lead-up to the big day. This seemingly inconsequential rite of passage suddenly becomes profound as the weight of history falls on teenage shoulders. We quickly learn that change does not come easily in this sleepy Delta town. Freeman's generosity fans the flames of racism - and racism in Charleston has a distinctly generational tinge. Some white parents forbid their children to attend the integrated prom and hold a separate white-only dance. "Billy Joe," an enlightened white senior, appears on camera in shadow, fearing his racist parents will disown him if they know his true feelings. PROM NIGHT IN MISSISSIPPI captures a big moment in a small town, where hope finally blossoms in black, white and a whole lot of taffeta. -David Courier, Sundance Film Festival
In the summer of 1965, I was in the Mississippi Delta doing voter registration work with SNCC—the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee—and, like many other civil rights workers, was assaulted and jailed.
Mississippi was known to us as "the belly of the beast” of southern racism and segregation. The KKK was strong there. The White Citizen's Council—the "white collar Klan” as they were referred to—was strong there. And as a "northerner,” in fact, a foreigner, since I had driven south from my home in Canada, I was somewhat shocked to discover some of the great institutions of America: the Boy Scouts, the Girl Guides, the YMCA, the Howard Johnson, even washrooms and drinking fountains, were segregated in the south.
For over forty years I thought about how race relations might have changed, or not changed, since I had been there. In 2007, I decided to find out. I bought my first video camera and flew down to Jackson. I had no plan or script or funding. I just wanted to talk with ordinary folks, black and white, young and old, racist and not racist, and encourage them to share their stories and feelings around matters of race. After renting a car and driving around the Delta, where I had mainly been in '65, it became a personal documentary, a road movie: 'Return to Mississippi.'
I met Morgan Freeman and filmed with him at his home in the small town of Charleston, Mississippi, population, 2,100. He, too, had returned to Mississippi where he grew up, saying he felt safer there than anywhere else in America.
On the one hand, I learned that Mississippi had come further in race relations than any State in the Union since the '60s—with the highest per capita black elected officials, black police chiefs and black fire chiefs. But then I found out something that seemed too strange to be true. I heard from a young woman that her integrated high school still held separate proms: one white prom and one black prom. If this was true, I wanted to include that as part of the film. I then learned that this prom was held in Morgan's home town, and that a decade prior, Morgan had offered to pay to integrate the high school prom, but was rebuffed. I asked Morgan about it, and he confirmed the story. I asked if he was willing to try again, and he said yes. So a meeting was set up with Morgan at the school board office, and we began filming a second feature documentary: 'Prom Night in Mississippi.'
Not knowing what would result, my wife and co-producer, Patricia Aquino, and I funded the shooting on our own. Tallahatchie County is the poorest in Mississippi and, likely, the poorest in the country. Some of the townsfolk were worried we had come to make them look bad. To win the confidence of the students, parents and school staff we moved to Mississippi and lived in the community for four months, culminating with the town's first-ever, integrated prom.
Many of the senior students, black and white, impressed me with their openness and awareness. Their courage to attend their first "mixed prom” and to share their feelings about race gives me hope that we are indeed heading in the right direction, hope that more change will come in the next few years than in the entire 43 years since I was last in Mississippi.
Paul Saltzman is a two-time Emmy® Award-winning Toronto-based film and television producer-director with over 300 productions to his credit.
After briefly studying Engineering Science, he did congressional civil rights lobbying in Washington, D.C., and voter registration work in Mississippi, which would later lead him to go back to the area to explore the concept of race and racism with Prom Night in Mississippi.
He began his film and television career at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as a researcher, interviewer and on-air host, and then moved to the National Film Board of Canada. He assisted in the birth of a new film format as second-unit director and production manager of the first IMAX film, produced for the Osaka 1970 World's Fair. In 1972, he produced and directed his first film, a half-hour documentary on Bo Diddley.
In 1973, Paul founded Sunrise Films Limited. He produced and directed documentaries for the next decade, including the acclaimed series Spread Your Wings. His work included producing, directing, writing, editing, cinematography and sound recording. In 1983, he turned to drama, producing and directing the premiere of HBO's Family Playhouse and a special for American Playhouse. In the same year, he co-created and produced the family action-adventure television series Danger Bay. The hit CBC-Disney Channel series ran for 6 years and 123 episodes.
Since then he has produced television series like My Secret Identity, Matrix and Max Glick, as well as miniseries and movies of the week. He co-produced the feature film Map of the Human Heart, an international epic directed by Vincent Ward, starring Jason Scott Lee, Anne Parillaud, Patrick Bergin, John Cusack and Jean Moreau. He also executive produced Martha, Ruth & Edie as well as Sam & Me, which received an Honorable Mention in competition for the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
In 2008, he made his feature-film directorial debut with the documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi, with Morgan Freeman. He is currently editing his 2nd feature, the documentary Return to Mississippi, with Harry Belafonte, the KKK and Morgan Freeman. Paul is a member of the Director's Guild of Canada and the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.
Paul has also published two books, The Beatles in Rishikesh, through the Viking Studio, Penguin Putnam, and a deluxe Limited Edition Box-Set, The Beatles in India, which he and Patricia Aquino self-published.
Before joining Sunrise Films Limited, as Vice-President of Operations, in 2000, Patricia Aquino, Producer of Prom Night in Mississippi and co-owner, with Paul Saltzman, of Return to Mississippi Prods. Inc., was a franchise owner of Black Isle Communications. At Sunrise, she co-published The Beatles in India Limited Edition books, as well as overseeing that project’s operations and administration.
Thabi N. Moyo, born in Jackson, Mississippi, is the film’s Associate Producer. Ms. Moyo graduated in film and education from Howard University in 2004. She returned to Mississipppi determined to combine education, artistry and cultural edification. She has coordinated the Crossroads Film Festival and been Cultural Manager for the Canton Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. A photographer and filmmaker, she is now based in New York City.
The U.S. Supreme Court orders the integration of all segregated schools in America, including all their events.
The town of Charleston, Mississippi, finally allows black students into their one high school. White parents refuse to integrate the school Graduation Dance, starting a tradition of separate, parent-organized White Proms and Black Proms.