Dancing Around Race Relations: Prom Night In Mississippi

Last night, HBO aired Prom Night In Mississippi, a documentary "starring" actor Morgan Freeman, who, in 2008, offered to pay for the senior prom at Mississippi's Charleston High School under one condition: the prom had to be racially integrated.

At Charleston High, even though black students and white students learn in the same classrooms, there is always a "white prom" and a "black prom."


Freeman gathered the senior class together and asked them if they wanted to have an integrated prom. It was a little bit of a set-up; no white students were willing to raise a hand and admit — in front of the black students, on camera, and in front of a black celebrity — that they or their parents didn't want to dance with their black peers.

But the senior class agreed to have an integrated prom after Freeman urged them to — and after he agreed to pay for it.

This turned out to be troubling for white students — or their parents. A competing "white prom" was organized.

The "white prom" was held at a location near the town, and only white students were invited to attend. But it wasn't racism! As a lawyer for some of the white students' parents says, the attendees just "happen to be" white.



Heather and Jeremy were the only interracial couple in the senior class. Heather's father was not happy that Heather likes Jeremy, and said he'd like to see them grow apart. Later in the film, Heather said she wants to marry Jeremy someday, and have his kids; Jeremy agreed that the relationship is headed in that direction. In school, they kept their relationship pretty quiet, just meeting by lockers and texting a lot, but the prom gave them the opportunity to show off… and actually attend a school function at which they would dance together.

The film did attempt to question why there is fear surrounding black students and white students dancing together — when they have grown up together and attended the same schools for years. It came down to sex, and the centuries-old stereotype that black men are sexually aggressive maniacs who will "dance up" on the town's precious white daughters and sully/ ruin/ impregnate them. Unfortunately for Heather and Jeremy, their dynamic — white female/black male — means that some people in their town will just never accept the relationship; and that includes Heather's father.


This is what will put a smile on your face: The limo ride! A giant white stretch limousine, rolling through dusty Southern roads, picking up dapper seniors, both black and white. (Yes, that is Erykah Badu singing in the background.)


In the end, the prom was like any other: Teenagers danced and enjoyed socializing together. And there was some intense krumping going on, from which a young lady emerged victorious.

Uplifting as it was to see these students make history, it hardly canceled out the rage at that small portion of the class who felt the need to segregate themselves at the white prom. There were a few white students who attended both the white prom and the integrated prom; and conflict was evident in their faces — on one hand, they wanted to party with friends; on the other, they didn't want to be perceived as racist themselves. Morgan Freeman is to be applauded for his initiative (he actually tried this once before, in 1997, but got nowhere), and the students of Charleston High should be proud of their efforts. You can't dance your troubles away, but it's a start.

Prom Night In Mississippi [HBO]
(view the screening schedule here.)