I knew going in that there had been separate proms all these years and that much of that had to do with fear of change.
How did this project come into being?
In a way, the story of Prom Night in Mississippi starts back in 1965 when I was a 21 year-old student who helped with voter registration in the Mississippi Delta as part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 2006, I was curious to see how things had changed in Mississippi and I went back to check it out, with no idea of making a film. Through a mutual friend, I met Morgan Freeman and after spending a day together my wife and co-producer, Patricia Aquino, and I decided to self-finance a feature documentary called 'Return to Mississippi.' This is a road trip movie of my going back to Mississippi and filming with, among others, Morgan Freeman and Harry Belafonte.
While we were finishing that film I heard about a Mississippi high school that had been integrated since 1970 but was still holding separate white and black proms, which coincidentally happened to be in Morgan Freeman's hometown. I called Morgan and asked him, is it true that they still hadseparate proms and he said yes, in fact that he had offered to pay for the whole prom if they would integrate it and no one took him up on it. That was in 1997. I asked him, "Is the offer still good?" And there was this wonderful pause on the other end of the phone and he said, "Oh...okay". And just like that the offer was back on the table only this time the school board agreed. My wife Patricia and I loaded up our car with gear and drove down from Toronto to Mississippi and with our Associate Producer, Thabi Moyo, we rented a place and basically filmed for four and a half months until the prom was over.
What were you hoping to capture?
We self-financed this film so we'd have the freedom to carry out our objective, which was really to make a film that would allow people to look at their own attitudes and beliefs and prejudices. I don't think there's a human being on the planet without some prejudice, including me. But if you allow people to look at their own attitudes and beliefs and prejudices, that's the beginning of change. So that was our goal: to help in moving beyond prejudice.
What did you learn that surprised you?
I knew going in that there had been separate proms all these years and that much of that had to do with fear of change, and fear that by stirring up the racial question somehow the horrid past would come forward again. And what I learned is that people in Charleston (and I believe this is true everywhere) do not really talk about the kind of issues that lie under the surface, that often control our behavior.
So while Mississippi has come a long way since the days of slavery, it also started much further behind and in some ways it therefore still is behind. When we asked people to share their feelings with us, especially young people, we got a true sense of what was going on and what people were feeling in the community.
What was the feeling like in the days leading up to the prom, and at the prom itself?
As prom day approached there was a growing excitement, like any teenage graduating class would have, with the girls getting their dresses and the guys renting their tuxes, and the girls having their hair and nails done and the boys having haircuts and getting their cars washed.
As for concerns about the event, the kids always thought that it would come off fine. It was the parents and teachers who were somewhat worried. But on the actual day, the kids were just terrific. Standing in that room with the prom going on, there was nothing but a bunch of teenagers, like anywhere else in the world, having a ball.
Some parents went ahead with having a white prom and wouldn't let their children attend the integrated prom. Well as it turned out the integrated prom was absolutely wonderful, but ironically there was a fight at the white prom between two boys over a girl. And so the trouble was not at the integrated prom, but at the white prom.
What kind of impact did the event have on the community, and how are the kids in the film doing today?
Most of the kids are in school now, and some are working so they can afford college. We did a 20-minute update on the kids that is available through HBO-On-Demand. It includes interviews and footage of our main characters, one year later.
In April 2009, the second integrated prom came off beautifully. There was, again, a white prom held by some of the parents who still wouldn't let their children go to an integrated prom. The white prom seems to have diminished in size a bit, and we filmed that from outside. As with the white prom in 2008, those white parents wouldn't allow us to film inside.
We've kept in touch with the main kids in our film, and in fact Jessica and Chasidy came with us to Sundance for the world premiere of the film and have been with us to several other film festivals. And the question and answer sessions after the screenings have been just terrific, very alive with lots of questions. Both Jessica and Chasidy tell us that they have had wonderful life-expanding experiences through their involvement with the film, which has been very gratifying for Patricia and myself.
2009 Documentary Films Series