Posted on November 13, 2009

The Prom That Made History

Nicholas Keung, Toronto Star, November 13. 2009

In the 1960s, Paul Saltzman went to Mississippi and was thrown in jail for his voter-registration activities.

Three years ago, the Oakville filmmaker went back to the Deep South state–and was shocked to find that the high school in Charleston still held separate proms for its black and white students.

What’s more, he [Paul Saltzman] was told Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, who has roots in the area, had offered to pay for an integrated prom at Charleston High School a decade earlier. His offer was rejected.

So in 2007, Saltzman contacted Freeman to find out if the offer still stood. It did, so Saltzman set about to bring about an integrated prom, while recording the process. The result is an 89-minute film titled Prom Night in Mississippi.

The documentary opens Friday in Toronto and has a special showing at 7:30 p.m. at the Varsity theatres with Freeman in attendance. The event will raise funds for anti-racism education kits, including a DVD of the movie, to be sent to schools in Canada and the U.S.

“Evil lives in shade. We need to shed a light on it and talk about it,” Saltzman says of his movie. “You got to say, ‘That’s not okay.'”

His film begins with Freeman meeting Charleston educators and addressing students to propose a first mixed prom at a school long since integrated in the classrooms.

It records the tensions in the Delta town of about 2,200 people, two-thirds black, leading up to the big day on April 19, 2008, when an otherwise uneventful teen social makes history.

The filmmaker had to overcome local skepticism. “Officials were worried that we were to shame them,” says Saltzman, a veteran of television and movies who had taken a 15-year hiatus from filmmaking before Prom Night.

“I assured them of one thing: I have no axe to grind. I just want to explain how they think and feel, and not put any spin on it.”

The results are compelling. There’s a young couple (she’s white, he’s black) who talk about defying their families to attend the dance together, getting applause from every guest. There’s the white teen who will only talk to the camera in silhouette as he criticizes his parents’ racist attitudes.

Saltzman and his wife, co-producer Patricia Aquino, lived in Charleston for five months to gain the community’s trust and grasp the tradition of the separate proms.

Most students favoured one prom for all; it was their parents, especially whites, who backed the two-prom tradition. Some of them organized a white-only prom for their kids and pressured them to ignore the integrated dance held later.

“They took the attitude that things had been much better before,” Saltzman says. “There used to be slavery, night riders and the Ku Klux Klan.”

Five Oakville families are sponsoring the special screening, among them Chris Invidiata, who knows firsthand how harmful systemic prejudice can be. His grandfather, an Italian immigrant, was interned by Canada when Italy lined up with Germany during World War II. He took his own life while in detention.

“Prom Night is a victory for the kids,” Invidiata said. “The story began when the students at Charleston initiated the ‘Yes’ decision. The barrier had to be broken.”

Saltzman has been working hard to spread that message to youth. His film has already been screened at 50 schools, including Earl Haig Secondary School, St. Andrew’s College and Lester B. Pearson Collegiate, here and in the U.S.

“Prom Night was screened at Lester B. Pearson during the Hot Docs (festival) in Toronto,” Saltzman says. “I got an email from the teacher later, telling me that all 23 students in the class stood up at the end to give a standing ovation.”

And in Mississippi? This year Saltzman and Aquino went back and were happy to learn the school had held a second mixed prom, although once again there was also a whites-only version.