When the veteran actor tried to end a racially segregated high-school tradition, Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman put his life on hold to help him chronicle the tensions. The result: a racial divide bridged
In his own quiet way, Morgan Freeman is a shite disturber. He strolls into the living room of a borrowed house in Oakville, just west of Toronto, and laments that he can’t get his hand down his pants. Soon enough he explains: He smashed the entire left side of his body in a car accident in August, 2008, and still hasn’t regained mobility in those fingers, so it’s hard to tuck his T-shirt into his jeans. But it makes for quite an entrance.
Freeman, 72, is an imposing figure, 6 foot 2 with a shock of white hair, a hoop in his left ear, and that trademark voice that can lull you into anything. Over a five-decade career on stage, screen and TV, he’s played everything from a pimp ( Street Smart , 1987) to the U.S. President ( Deep Impact , 1998), winning an Oscar (for Million Dollar Baby , 2004) and racking up three other nominations. But he clearly loves toying with the authority all of that conveys upon him. In the middle of a sentence, he suddenly says to me, sternly, “You keep playing with the hem of your dress.”
Instantly I blush, muttering about friction, leather couches and shortish dresses. “Well, you chose it,” he says, then bursts out laughing.
So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that when he moved in 1991 to Charleston, Miss., (population 2,100), near where he’d grown up, Freeman immediately began shaking things up. With his business partner, local attorney Bill Luckett, he goosed the economy by opening Ground Zero Blues Club and a chi-chi restaurant called Madidi. They also started the Rock River Foundation, which grants funds to educational organizations and finds companies to match them. “I felt I must make a difference here.” Freeman says.
One thing drove him crazy, though. The town’s only high school graduates about 80 seniors a year, but for decades – in a tradition sanctioned and paid for by parent organizations – it has held two senior proms: one for white students, who make up about 40 per cent of the school, and a separate one for black students. So in 1997, Freeman made them a proposition: If they planned and held a single, racially integrated prom, he would pay for it. They declined. Ten years later he offered again, and this time they agreed. Eighty kids is a small number, but Freeman knew it was enough to effect a big change.
“I always felt at home in Mississippi, comfortable, safe,” he says. “Travelling around, I came to the conclusion that it was no worse than any other place in the U.S. in terms of racism. And I can go buy toothpaste, and no one asks me for an autograph. But I had to stop this [prom tradition]. I mean, come on. Kids are literally being damaged with this kind of teaching. I think it’s criminal, and you have to do something. You have to talk about it. And you have to talk to the kids; they’re the victims of the adults. How do you devictimize them? You have to tell them, ‘You have the power. You must do this.'”
Meanwhile, Paul Saltzman, the award-winning Canadian filmmaker and TV producer ( Danger Bay ), was on an odyssey of his own. In 1965, he’d gone to Mississippi with the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee to register voters, and ended up spending 10 days in jail and getting punched by the son of the man who murdered Medgar Evers. In 2007, he went back to chronicle what had changed and not changed in the past 40 years. A friend hooked him up with Freeman, and Saltzman decided to put his own project on hold to follow the prom story.
Saltzman and his producer, Patricia Aquino (who is also his wife), moved to Mississippi for four months, invested $750,000 of their own money, and shot 165 hours of video. The resulting 89-minute documentary, Prom Night in Mississippi , had its gala premiere last night in Toronto, with Freeman and Saltzman on hand for a Q&A.
The film follows 13 students of both races as they plan the dance, choose dresses and tuxes, and discuss their town’s history of segregation and their feelings about integration. Happily, the event went off without a hitch, though a cadre of white parents refused to give up their prom or allow their kids to go to the integrated one. (They declined to appear on camera, or even meet the filmmakers for an off-camera cup of coffee.) Prom Night in Mississippi isn’t the only Freeman film this year that hits the hot button of race relations. In the upcoming Invictus , he plays Nelson Mandela for director Clint Eastwood. The Oscar buzz has already begun. The film opens Dec. 11.
Freeman’s always been an actor’s actor. He fell hard for it in high school, then at Los Angeles Community College. “I’d lose myself in a part, and in that loss was this feeling of power,” he says. “I had power over my surroundings, I knew what to do instinctively, it came so easily. I always get that feeling at work. But only at work.”
Screenwriters tell him all the time that they’ve written a part with him in mind. “But what they mean is that they’ve written it with a character I’ve played in mind, because there is no me,” he says. “These days it’s all about gravitas, characters with authority and wisdom. It’s easy to find yourself boxed in. And if they want you to recreate a role you’ve done well, they throw a bucket of money at you. You’ve got to learn that money will wreck you”, because the next role is going to be just the same thing – but without that money.”???? Yet some of the so-called tailor-made parts stun him: “I think, ‘Lord! What part of me were you thinking about when you wrote this?'” he says, chortling.
When he’s not working, Freeman escapes to a 44-foot ketch he keeps in the Virgin Islands. “That’s where I feel most me,” he says. “The sea is an implacable force. You get on it, and it’s just you and it. You meet yourself there. I sail by myself, all I need is a cook. I have one friend in particular who can make a meal under any circumstances.”
The integration Freeman effected in Charleston’s 2008 prom held through its 2009 incarnation, too (though there was also still a white prom.) “I knew that if we pushed the kids toward more dialogue among themselves, the more they’d realize what it means if you adhere to a negative system.” He grins the grin of a successful stirrer-upper. “I don’t see how they could possibly go back.”
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