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'Prom Night in Mississippi' Makes History


A new documentary, shown several weeks after the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, focuses on racism in the American South.

Last year, Charleston, Mississippi's high school seniors, 70 percent black and 30 percent white, were in full swing for the biggest event of their school lives: senior prom. It's a pre-graduation formal affair that culminates with the selection of the most popular male and female seniors: the prom king and queen.

But Paul Saltzman's documentary has an unusual twist. The 2008 Charleston prom was racially integrated for the first time, thanks to Academy Award winner and Charleston resident Morgan Freeman, who pushed for the change.

"I'm offering them the opportunity to do it, to break this logjam of social inaction," said the actor.

Freeman gave the seniors a deal they couldn't refuse.

"Do you wanna have a prom, instead of two or three?" he asked Charleston high school seniors. "You all arrange your prom. I'll pay for it. Deal?"

The students responded positively.

But school Superintendent William Trible was less enthusiastic.

"We're concerned about safety," he told Freeman.

"Of course you are. Of course you are," the Oscar winner responded. "And if we do have armed security, I think it should be in plain clothes."

Saltzman filmed the developing story. For five months, he taped preparations for the prom.

Charleston high school seniors were busy looking for gowns and tuxedos and talking about their dates. John is one of them.

"It's going to be a pretty fun night. I don't believe I've got two dates! It's going to be pretty crazy," John said.

But underneath the festive atmosphere, the documentary shows that students were aware that the integrated prom, although a big step, was not going to bridge the town's racial divide.

Students like Jessica spoke openly about it.

"I can't get a job in some places in town because the racism is so bad here. Because I have black friends," she said.

Others were not as open. They used pseudonyms or hid their faces when they spoke on camera about what they said was racism in Charleston.

A senior nicknamed "Billy Joe," with his face hidden on camera, said Charleston does not tolerate mixed friendships and marriages.

"There are people around here, that they'll disown their kids if they tried to mix things up like that."

But the film also shows that many young people in Charleston are battling racism. Heather, a white young woman, and Jeremy, a black young man, are two of them.

"I would really like to get married to Jeremy and eventually have kids since he doesn't want any right now," said Heather, as Jeremy chuckled.

Saltzman hopes their approach to life inspires others.

"My hope for my film is that young people - or anybody, but especially young people - walk out of theaters, and for a moment they reflect on their own attitudes, their own beliefs, and their own prejudices. We all have them," says the filmmaker.

Charleston's 2008 prom was a success. As to whether it will help heal racial tensions, that remains to be seen.

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