“Prom Night” at the White House

The award-winning Prom Night in Mississippi, which documented the first integrated high school prom in Charleston, Mississippi, is making its way to the White House for a special screening this week. Realscreen talked to director/producer Paul Saltzman about the film's continuing impact and his upcoming Mississippi-based project.
December 12, 2011

In 1965, a young Paul Saltzman, barely in his twenties, left his home in Toronto to join the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration drive in Mississippi. It was a tumultuous time in the Southern U.S., with three activists helping with the registration effort – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – murdered by Ku Klux Klan members in the summer of ’64. Saltzman got to experience the violence when he was punched in the head by a Klansman.

In 2006 he returned to Mississippi to see for himself the changes in the state’s race relations since the ugliness of the early Sixties. While there, he met actor Morgan Freeman, a native of Charleston, and became inspired to make a documentary road movie of his trip. But what he learned on the last day of filming for that doc radically changed the trajectory of the project.

Upon hearing that the students at the high school in Charleston, integrated since 1970, was still attending segregated proms, and that Freeman himself had offered to finance an integrated prom in 1997 but received no response, Saltzman called the actor once again to see if the offer still stood.

Turns out it was, and the rest, as they say, is history. The kids of Charleston High School in Mississippi had their first integrated prom in 2008, and Saltzman’s cameras captured the activity leading up to the event and the prom itself. Prom Night in Mississippi gained huge accolades following its Sundance premiere and was picked up for U.S. broadcast by HBO Documentary Films. Its impact continues to be felt through screenings organized by Saltzman and his partner and co-producer Patricia Aquino through their non-profit organization, Moving Beyond Prejudice, with an upcoming screening this week in a most prestigious venue – the White House.

On Tuesday December 13, the film will be screened for about 150 students and educators, followed by a Moving Beyond Prejudice Q&A hosted by Saltzman. The director says Freeman was again a catalyst for this most recent development.

“When I finished Prom Night I took the final cut down to Morgan to see if there was anything he had a problem with,” Saltzman recalls. “I showed it to him and he loved it, and over dinner that night he said ‘We should show this to the Obamas in the White House.’”

Two years later, the actor sent a DVD of the film to the president’s personal assistant, which led to the invitation. And while Saltzman doesn’t know if the Obamas will be in attendance, he confirms that, thanks to funding from the Coca-Cola Foundation in Atlanta, 10 of the stars from the film – including one of the parents, Glenn Sumner – will be able to attend and take part in the Q&A.

Saltzman says the film has also recently been acquired by OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network for broadcast sometime in the spring of next year. While he plans to continue screenings under the Moving Beyond Prejudice banner for the film – some 25,000 kids across North America have seen it in that forum – he’s hard at work cutting the original project that he’d been working on prior to Prom Night, which he says it at the rough cut stage. This time, another figure who proved to be a catalyst in Saltzman’s civil rights work – the Klansman who physically attacked him in 1965 – figures prominently.

“The new film has turned into an examination of whether reconciliation is possible between me and him,” says Saltzman of the as-yet-untitled project. “I’ve filmed him four times, the latest being five weeks ago, and what happens between us is quite surprising.”

Saltzman will be looking for an American broadcaster for the project and also says he’ll “see what festivals will be interested.” And while the team did revisit Charleston in 2009 to follow up for the DVD release of the film, Saltzman says he’d like to go back again in 2013 to continue to chart the town’s progress in moving beyond prejudice.

“It’ll be five years later,” he says. “I keep in touch with them and I expect that to continue. I think we’re close to the kids and that’s important to me.”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.