Monday, January 19, 2009
Maybe the fifth time's the charm? Maybe the fifth time, I can watch without crying? I think maybe, because on each viewing I cry at a later point in fact, Saturday night, when Prom Night in Mississippi pemiered at Holiday Village Cinema in Park City, Utah, it was my fourth viewing, and I nearly made it 70 minutes before breaking down at Heather and Jeremy's senior walk. It was the expression on Heather's facethe radiance and quiet confidence of this shy 17-year-old, escorted down the mock-runway by her classmate and boyfriend of four yearsthe boy over which she's been grounded and had her phone taken away ("she overcame all that," her dad, Glenn Sumners, tells us), the boy she texts first thing in the morning and hangs with during locker-break, the boy she's never actually "dated" because her father thinks other people's prejudice will make her life difficult, so he does what he can to discourage his white daughter from her black boyfriend. And in that walk, that public moment of intimate celebration, they seem like such a solid couple, so happy and secure, that really, it's the hope of the moment that gets me.
And it seems appropriate that Heather and Jeremy's first official date would occur at a school-sponsored event, since they met in elementary school, and school is the one place that they've always been able to count on spending time together. Their relationship has endured parental misgivings and criticism from friends, but finally, for the sixty seconds or so that it takes to stroll down the platform, they are applauded by their teachers and classmates, as an interacial couple and, I hope, for the bigger picture they represent in a district where prom has always been a parent-sponsored "private" event, segregated by race.
Okay, background: Prom Night in Mississippi originally started as Return to Mississippi (full disclosure: I spent a few weeks P.A.-ing this earlier version), a personal journey in which Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman returns to Greenwood, Miss. to relive his experiences (including a fist to the face, compliments of a local member of the Citizen's Council) while registering voters during Freedom Summer. While filming in Clarksdale, businessman Bill Luckett mentioned that in his partner Morgan Freeman's town, "they still have separate proms," and that, a decade ago, Morgan's offer to fund an integrated prom was rejected. Former JFP photographer Thabi Moyo, credited as Associate Producer, Sound, additional Photography and additional Directing on Prom Night in Mississippi, confirmed this information with a Charleston High student she met at a gas station, and suddenly, Return to Mississippi became (temporarily, at least) back-burner stuff.
But race in Mississippi is a complex issue, often played reductively by the media. At this point we're skeptical and sensitive. Honestly, I'm surprised the district gave Paul such unfettered access. When I voice this anomaly, Paul tells me, "As soon as the school board accepted Morgan's offer, they still wanted me to come to Mississippi and meet them before giving me permission to film what they were most concerned about was, was I there to shame them, was I there to make them look bad and I said, there's no gain for me in making people look backwards, I'm here just to see how people feel about the prom and about race relations." The concept of segregated proms is shocking, even to other Mississippians (when Paul informed a Greenwood resident, a mere 52 miles from Charleston, of this situation, the man said, "you're kidding!"), but in the doc, Charleston's residents come across as real and recognizable. This achievement levies the film's message of hope, legitimizing something that could seem easy, insincere and sensationalist.
This hope is especially timely on January 20, 2009, the day the first African-American President of the United States will be sworn into office. But Obama's mother is Caucasian, making Obama half-Caucasian. Essentially, Obama is integration embodiedhe is both, he is the result of letting go of the fear that for many Americans in and beyond Mississippi, has dominated our social constructions of power, privilege and identity since the day we were born.
The beauty of Prom Night in Mississippi is that it goes beyond its professed subject. Change isn't just about race, and hope isn't just about integration. In the words of CHS student, Chasidy Buckley, "That's the America Dream anyhow, to be better than the last generation." And while he doesn't approve of Heather and Jeremy, Glenn knows that in a few months, Heather will turn 18, she will leave for college, and any control he has will evaporate. "You can't determine who your child's gonna love and not love. But I'm gonna stick with her no matter what decision she makes, because I love her that much," he says. "I'm not going to turn my back on her ever." And this is where the crying started in the second viewingbecause I know these people and you do, too. They are our aunts and uncles, our parents and grandparents. They are among the kindest and most charitable people we'll ever meet. They are those generations that didn't inherit integrated schools and water-fountains as a birthright, they don't understand, yet most of them are trying, and if they never get it, they're still going to be there, hurt and confused and fiercely loving us anyway. And we'll stand before them, hurt and confused and fiercely loving them anyway. That's one of the most poignant parts of the story, and that's the part the media never seems to comprehend.
In Prom Night, the intensity is backed by fun, because, well, high school is fun and high schoolers are funny. The gestures, the expressions, the freestylin' in the parking lot are testaments to Mississippi. These kids are endearing, full of warmth, intelligence, and optimism. Maybe some people think a film like this should make you embarrassed to be from Mississippi, but I experienced the opposite. The effort of the parents, and most of all, the creativity and character of the students filled me with love and gratitude for my home state. And when Chasidy (who, in the course of the doc narrowly and controversially misses being named valedictorian) says her "number one dream is to come back and take over Charleston High School and make it better, take over the whole school district," you have no doubts she'll accomplish thiseven less so when you meet her in person.
Part of what has made this year's Sundance experience so rich for me is that two of the featured students, Chasidy and Jessica Shivers, are staying at a condo with Thabi, Nina Parikh (of the Mississippi Film Office), Philip Scarborough (of Crossroads), and Stephen Philipson and Kevin Schjerning (Canadian editors). The girls are starry-eyed but astuteso open and willing to vocally examine themselves and their beliefs. Getting acquainted this week has been pure pleasure. Their talent and intelligence are inspiration, and their curiosity and wonderment has been such fun to witness. Jessica studies theater at Northwest Community College, and Chasidy is at Delta State, majoring in Elementary Edbut all of that probably seems universes away this week, as they give interviews for CNN and attend private parties, post-screening Q & A's and LA Times photo shoots.
So Saturday morning was (for me), slow and frustrating (grrr Delta Airlines), but that evening, things went down fast. The girls had their make-up applied by Mac stylists, and then the crew and Canadian and Mississippian friends piled into two vans and headed down the mountain to a Chinese dinner with one of the Sundance World Doc publicists. Roughly two seconds after steaming rice, sesame chicken, and spicy tofu hit the table, half of the group (the important half!) were whisked away for a photo shoot, leaving the rest of us to hurriedly shovel leftovers into boxes and claim our reserved-seating before they were offered to groveling wait-listers.
Chasidy and Jessica had never seen the film. Of course they bawled (watching it is headycan't imagine what living it was like!) but afterwards, there was the post-screening high. Everyone (well, ok, Thabi, Jessica, Chasidy and I) bopped around the parking lot, chanting the freestylers' chorus from the film ("CHS is the best, CHS in the best, There's no lie, Morgan Freeman said it all, so you know this prom is going on"). We had a hotel after-party and an offer (compliments of Candace's charm) to attend a house party given by 50-Cent but instead we headed back to the condo for games and champagne, and around 3am, bed.
All in all, I'd say that the night was pretty amazing. And the best part is, it doesn't stop here. At least, it doesn't have to. Bring on the change!
Honored to be a part of this historic film. A moment in time forever captured on film. Some of these kids will tell their kids and their grandkids about this night. The others won't catch its relevance until they experience other places
Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah-O (O is the letter of the day!) Kamikaze's in the film, throwing down for the kids at prom! Remind me if I miss other Jackson connections--it's been a long week...