Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Racism Beyond Black And White At Sundance

Teens wrestle with racism at Sundance Film Festival

Consider Jessica Shivers in "Prom Night in Mississippi." She is a high school senior in the small Southern town of Charleston, Miss., population 2,300. She is fiery, beautiful and on the lower end of the economic scale. That she is white is a defining characteristic in writer-director Paul Saltzman's telling documentary about the long tentacles of race that still wrap themselves around us.

Jessica's boyfriend is also white; many of her friends are not. Her stepfather would beat her for her choice of friends, but he's in prison, so it is a nonissue for now. She struggles to find after-school jobs -- discriminated against by some white employers in her small town because it is known that she has African American friends. The local cops have pulled them over when they're riding in the car together. We meet Jessica and others in her senior class only because actor Morgan Freeman lives in Charleston and has been troubled by the high school's practice of separate, segregated proms. Given that court-ordered desegregation of schools began in 1954, "Prom Night" is a reminder of the perception versus reality clash of the racial divide circa 2009.

Freeman first offers to pay for the event in 1997 if the school board members will agree to integrate the prom -- they decline. After talking to the students, he offers again in 2008 -- this time the board accepts. Through interviews with students, their parents and teachers, what emerges is a case study on racial attitudes that is as candid as it is revealing.

A white father talks of the devastation he feels that his daughter is dating an African American boy; the boy's parents talk of their concerns too, though their fears are less abstract -- it is the violence they worry he might face for dating a white girl. The couple, Heather and Jeremy, are unfazed; as with most of their classmates, race is not an issue. They see racism as an inherited trait that stopped with their parents, one that doesn't extend to them or their friends.

Saltzman's camera catches the unspoken ambivalence in the body language of school officials as they discuss the logistics of integrating the prom. Though he tries for balance, he is not helped by the decision of most of the white parents who oppose the change not to participate in the film. Heather's father, a sincere and sad Glen Sumner, is the lone white voice struggling to explain why his resistance to his daughter's boyfriend isn't rooted in racism.

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