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Teens wrestle with racism at Sundance Film Festival

Four new films look at contemporary teens through the prism of high school and race.

January 25, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

PARK CITY, UTAH — Whether rich and privileged or struggling and living on the margins, one of the principal ways that teens cope with the difficulties of a life in the process of defining itself is . . . they don't. Instead they lash out in anger; they shut down when they should open up; they walk away when they should stay. Add in the issue of race, and the pot boils over, scalding hot.

In four new films, we see all this and more as a handful of Sundance filmmakers look at the life of contemporary teens in the U.S. through the prism of the high school experience and race. Using documentary and dramatic narratives, plumbing difficult and distinctive stories, the world the filmmakers give us is at once shadowed by the problems of the past and surprisingly saturated by hope for a better day. That is, of course, if you agree with the premise that a better day includes setting aside our racial differences, and as becomes apparent in the cinematic tutorial at Sundance, we are a long way from consensus on that front.

It was impossible to watch these films -- from the powerful cinematic expression of "Push" to the incisive documentary storytelling of "Prom Night in Mississippi" -- over the last few days without all the emotion of the inauguration of the country's first African American president vibrating in the air around them. Barack Obama's name and his mantra of change were often invoked as the films were introduced, providing an inescapable layer of context. If you are in the camp of those who believe that film more often reflects rather than predicts social crosscurrents -- and I am -- the voices coming out of here suggest that we are already a country with a younger generation very much impatient for that change.

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.

We watch tensions, both profound and ordinary, rise as prom night approaches -- Who will show up? What will they wear? Is extra security needed? Then too there is the matter of the whites-only prom that is organized by dissenting families and the rising pressure on their kids to attend that one too.

Like teenagers everywhere, the Charleston high school seniors are awash in bravado, rebellion, optimism and naivete. Hopefully Saltzman will return to Charleston, say for the fifth- or 10th-year class reunion, to see how the next chapter has played out for them.

That this generation intends to shake off what it sees as the fear, prejudice and ignorance of its parents is a theme echoed again in Cruz Angeles' sweet drama "Don't Let Me Drown."

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