Prom Night In Mississippi is a documentary that shouldn’t exist, since the issue it explores forthrightly and tenderly—integration—belongs in the distant past, not the uncertain present. The United States remains powerfully divided, yet its de facto segregation tends to fall along invisible class and geographic lines. Rarely is it as overt and shameful as a high school in Mississippi still holding separate black and white proms more than half a century after the Supreme Court officially banned school segregation.
Prom Night In Mississippi chronicles Morgan Freeman’s attempts to drag his home state kicking and screaming into the 20th, then 21st century. Given Freeman's status as a towering icon of African-American dignity and assimilation, it’s an appropriate role for him. The school board accepts his kind offer to pay for the prom as long as it’s integrated—who could possibly say “no” to the voice of God?—and a community separated by a poisonous history of racial intolerance and oppression wrestles with the prospect of the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave-holders coming together on the same dance floor. Freeman emerges as a prophet of righteousness, a man eager to use his power and money to right unforgivable wrongs.
But old habits die hard, and the integrated prom quickly winds up in direct competition with an all-white prom. (In a wry aside, one of the attendees notes that since only Caucasians attended the white prom, there wasn’t much dancing going on.) The filmmakers let the teenagers tell their own stories via video diaries that alternate between cocky swagger—one ambitious soul announces his intention to become mayor of Oakland—and self-doubt, and they augment the real-life drama with comic-book-style bursts of animation. The students cope with long-overdue changes much better than their tradition-bound parents. For these disarmingly sweet, guileless kids, history isn’t destiny, and the sins of the past can be overcome through the idealism and perseverance of the present.
Key features: A conversation with the producer and director, plus deleted and bonus scenes.