When I saw The Order of Myths earlier this year, I was surprised to find that such a public display of race division was still alive and accepted in the US. It’s not to say that I live in an ideal world where racism doesn’t exist but it’s usually a topic that hides behind closed doors, which people discuss in hushed whispers and (mostly) deny in public.
Margaret Brown’s documentary about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama was an eye opener. A celebration that predates the much more popular one in New Orleans’, things in Mobile are done a little differently with not one but two Mardi Gras parades and celebrations: one for the whites and one for African Americans. Though the individuals live, work and play together when it comes to celebrating Fat Tuesday, celebrations are segregated. There are two parades, two dances and two sets of Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras.
Brown’s documentary is a fascinating watch and though she is given access to the various groups involved in with the floats and organizing of events on both sides, no one really has an answer to why the celebration is still separate. The common answer is always “tradition” or “that’s how it’s always been done” but it makes you wonder why few people ask “When is enough enough? When do you fore go tradition?” And though Brown attempts to get some answers, she leaves the film open ended and rarely does racism rear its head although it’s always in the back of the mind and in full display on screen.
And then, along comes Paul Saltzman with Prom Night in Mississippi, a documentary that doesn’t simply ask the questions but puts an apparent solution into action. Charleston Mississippi is in a similar boat except rather than segregated Mardi Gras, the town of 3,000 has segregated Proms.
In 1997, Morgan Freeman, a resident of Charleston, offered to pay for Prom if it was integrated and at the time, he was turned away. He made the same offer ten years later and after cutting a little red tape and speaking to the student body, it was agreed that Prom in Charleston would be ground breaking and for the first time be integrated (though not without a few problems and dissenters).
What surprised me most about Saltzman’s film is that he manages to get direct answers from his subjects while Brown’s circled and skirted the issue of racism. Perhaps it’s the fact that Saltzman’s subjects are teens and much more open to speaking freely and frankly about the issues at hand and though both films approach the issue of race relations in the US in similar ways, and both are compelling, it is Saltzman’s that really hits home and the one that we should be showing children. And perhaps the film is more powerful and disturbing because it focuses on the youth, the individuals that will one day lead the country.
Both The Order of Myths and Prom Night in Mississippi are essential viewing. Documentaries that manage to be both insightful, entertaining and which turn our attention to an issue that is still alive and sadly, thriving.
Prom Night Mississippi Trailer