Students from Prom Night in MississippiThe Los Angeles Times has a review out about films exploring the subject of teenagers and race at the Sundance Film Festival.

The films covered include Prom Night in Mississippi, about the practice of holding racially segregated high school proms in Charleston, Miss.; Don’t Let Me Drown, a drama about racial and other tensions in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001; Push, a brutal yet hopeful examination of the cycle of poverty and despair in Harlem; and Toe to Toe, a drama about racial prejudice set at an elite private school.

Prom Night in Mississippi is perhaps the most shocking of these films, especially for those previously unaware of the ongoing practice of racially segregated proms in smaller towns in the Deep South.

Actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in tiny Charleston, finally convinces the school board to integrate the prom in 2008, and the film lets the audience explore the generational chasm on race between the town’s teenagers and their parents. For most of the high school’s students, race appears to be a non-issue, and interracial dating is both common and unremarkable to them. Their parents and other authority figures, meanwhile, seem profoundly threatened by this sea change in local race relations.

The film critic, Betsy Sharkey, offers the following nuanced observation about the high school students in Prom Night:

They see racism as an inherited trait that stopped with their parents, one that doesn’t extend to them or their friends.

I think this line captures nicely the tension between optimism about rapidly changing attitudes towards race among younger Americans, and recognition that more open attitudes do not necessarily amount to the absent of any racial prejudice. Nevertheless, in the context of a small southern town with such open racial prejudice, it is remarkable that so many teenagers could be be as free of those attitudes as this documentary shows that they are.

Hat tip: Holly Fulton, a distant cousin who appears with me in Traces of the Trade.

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