Four Days, 100 Films 

On Location: Memphis celebrates 10 years with a busy movie weekend.

A scene from Prom Night in Mississippi

A scene from Prom Night in Mississippi

Celebrating a 10th anniversary this week, On Location: Memphis International Film Festival is back with 100 screenings and numerous panels and workshops and Q&A's from Thursday, April 23rd to Sunday, April 26th. It will be in its new home at Malco's Ridgeway Four theater in East Memphis.

Highlights of this year's slate are films that will take you to places as unfamiliar as the other side of the world (Ibadan, Cradle of Nigerian Literati) and as familiar as our own hometown (The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306). You'll meet new people (You Are Not Alone), and you'll see people you thought you knew in a different light (Sam Cooke: Crossing Over and Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison).

Things will start with a screening of the Morgan Freeman-involved documentary Prom Night in Mississippi Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Following will be an opening-night party at Ground Zero Blues Club off Beale Street downtown. A red carpet will greet attendees, there will be live music, and the festival awards — for the categories Live Action Short, Feature, Music Video, Documentary, and Animated Short — will be given out beginning around 10 p.m. Admission is free with a festival pass or $10 at the door.

Other special events include films chosen for younger audiences, screening Saturday at 10 a.m., and a "Fright Night" selection of horror films Saturday night.

Two films will be of particular interest to local audiences and act as bookend statements on modern-day American racial realities: The Witness and Prom Night.

The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 is a documentary short that examines the events leading up to and the moment Martin Luther King Jr. was killed at the Lorraine Motel, from the point of view of the only other person who was on the balcony when the shot rang out, the Rev. Samuel "Billy" Kyles.

Through interviews and sermons with Kyles and conversations with civil rights leaders and key players Maxine Smith, Benjamin L. Hooks, and sanitation worker Taylor Rogers, The Witness reconstructs Memphis in the spring of 1968: the sanitation workers' strike in full swing, the "I Am a Man" marchers, the chaos and failure of the March 29th demonstration, and King's return a week later to prove that the demonstration could be done peacefully. And then Mason Temple the night of April 3rd. And the Lorraine the next evening.

With archival footage and photos, The Witness leverages considerable power, charging the particles of the past with the emotional immediacy of the moment. Kyles, too, gets lots of credit for reminding the audience of the frustrations, disappointments, and even pleasures of King's last days — and the pain of the end — especially for those, like me, who weren't yet born.

click to enlarge The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
  • The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306

Kyles admits that for some time following the assassination, he wondered why he should have been the one to be standing by King at the time of his death. It's no small question for a man to ask, much less a man of God: Why me? And then, at some point, Kyles found his answer: "Crucifixions have to have witnesses."

The Witness was directed by Adam Pertofsky and produced by native Memphian Margaret Hyde for the National Civil Rights Museum. The film was nominated for an Academy Award this year for documentary short. Kyles will be present at the 7 p.m. screening and will conduct a Q&A, Friday, April 24th.

"Shoot the dreamer and see what happens to the dream." That's Kyles in The Witness, but the statement applies to another top film at On Location: Memphis, Prom Night in Mississippi. The feature-length documentary takes its own look at the legacy of King and the civil rights movement, this time examining the racial relations in the small town of Charleston, Mississippi (pop. 2,100, "A Good Place To Live").

The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of all schools in 1954. But Charleston High School wasn't integrated until 1970. And even then the school continued the practice of holding separate white and black proms. Charleston native Morgan Freeman offered to pay for an integrated prom in 1997 but was rebuffed by the school board. He tried again in 2008 and was finally accepted. Prom Night follows Freeman's endeavor, the kids' reactions to his offer, and some of the parents' actions against it.

There were 415 students enrolled at Charleston High in 2008 — 70 percent of them black. For the film, some students were given cameras to record diaries of their thoughts. And so it's through the kids' eyes that we see the drama unfold, as most students embrace the opportunity for an integrated prom, other students lash out at the idea, and the weight of the town's bigotry starts to weigh on them all.

What emerges is that the majority of the teens have made healthy decisions about the value of judging others based on race and that problems are introduced by parents and older generations. As frustrating as it is to see bigotry passed down to those with the least ability to resist, it's still exciting to realize that this backward thinking may be in the process of being extinguished.

Prom Night also works as teen ritual. The customs of prom prep remain a universal rite of passage. And like any great prom movie, it's got choreographed dancing.

Prom Night in Mississippi screens Thursday, April 23rd, at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with director Paul Saltzman and some of the Charleston High students.

On Location: Memphis International Film Festival

Ridgeway Four

Thursday, April 23rd-Sunday, April 26th

Admission $10 opening night, $8.50 other screenings

See onlocationmemphis.org for a full schedule.

Check out the Flyer's new film, music, and pop-culture blog, "Sing All Kinds," at memphisflyer.com/blogs/singallkinds for more festival content.

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