Director Paul Saltzman’s first feature, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” dealt with a challenge to the long-standing tradition of having separate black and white proms in the traditionally racist state of Mississippi. His sequel was to be called “Return to Mississippi,” with him acting as travelogue narrator showing how the state had changed or not changed. But instead he made “The Last White Night,” which is every much a tribute to the art of reconciliation as it is a travelogue of the civil rights movement as seen through the eyes of a lone Canadian SNCC volunteer.
In 1965, at the idealistic age of 21, Saltzman found himself on the streets of Greenwood, Mississippi, with the intent of registering black people to vote. It wasn’t but a short time later that a powerful fist plowed into his face and knocked him almost unconscious – a typical “welcome” by the local KKK to the unwanted “outside agitators” attempting to disrupt their comfortable life of injustice in the South. Paul ended up in jail.
Years later, in “The Last White Night,” he searches for the man who did this. Delay de la Beckwith ends up being a Klan member whose father killed Medgar Evers. But in an amazing twist to the story, Saltzman finds a point of consensus and strikes up an unlikely friendship with this charming genteel Southerner, eventually inviting him to Toronto to be interviewed. Saltzman’s uncanny skill at meeting this racist being on a human level, always asking the right questions, makes one wonder where he acquired this ability. “I studied meditation while in India working on a film,” he says. “I also read Gandhi, and a very impressionable book by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, titled ‘Non-Violent Communication.'”
Saltzman’s upbringing consisted of Jewish parents who had memories of the Russian pogroms and being saved by the Bolsheviks. His father was a fiscally conservative communist, a union organizer in Montreal, but more interested in saving the world than showing love to his family. However, his parents instilled the sense of fairness, equity and non-prejudice that might have prompted that young Toronto student to travel deep into the land of hate and prejudice. He summarizes, “It doesn’t matter what you call yourself if you haven’t learned to love people on a personal level. I would call myself a liberal. Justice is what’s important.”
He explains what really prompted him to go South: “When you’re 21 you think you’re invincible. I read in the news about the three guys who were killed. It impacted me deeply. The next summer I volunteered with SNCC. Went to D.C. to learn about non-violent resistance.”
When he arrived, a friend said, “You know you can’t change people’s minds about integration and equality.” He responded, “This isn’t about changing people’s minds. You have the right to hate anyone you want, but you don’t have the right to stop people from voting because they’re black.”
In the movie that recreates some of his experiences, the more violent scenes are cleverly treated in animation to fill in for the lack of archival footage. The film includes interviews with noted figures such as Medgar Ever’s brother Charles, Morgan Freeman (who helped him on “Prom Night”), Harry Belafonte, and activist Jimmy Travis. Knowing his commitment to SNCC and the civil rights movement, they all volunteered their time to help bring the story alive.
But the most striking aspect of the film is Saltzman’s unbelievable conversations with Beckwith, his racist opponent, still a proud member of the Klan, certainly guilty of many obscene crimes. “My interest was to understand him, because I think that is a key to non-violent communication,” Saltzman says. He adds, “It’s quite easy to move beyond prejudice if you invite people into looking within themselves. We all have it. There’s not a human being in the world who doesn’t have some prejudice. A negative thought is truly a training, it comes from somewhere else, because as everyone knows, children aren’t prejudiced at all, until they are taught that. So you can unlearn that. And the way to unlearn that is to just hear your own thinking.”
Saltzman overcame his prejudice about Southern “rednecks,” which allowed him to see the human side of Beckwith, to develop constructive conversation that eventually allowed the beginning of reconciliation, the revelation of truth and hope for the future. This is the core process that informed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and many others that followed.
So has Mississippi changed? A person who’s been there many times, Harry Belafonte, confesses in the movie, “People tell me that things have changed. And yet, I don’t trust Mississippi.” We’ve certainly got a long way to go, but this movie is revelatory, profound and moving. It lays the groundwork for a constructive method of dealing with violence in society. It keeps you engrossed from the first minute to the last.
Paul Saltzman made over 300 TV shows and films before “Prom Night,” which was the first of his “educational” films. He is available to travel with “The Last White Night” and discuss his experiences along with the art of reconciliation.
Photo: Director Paul Saltzman. Bill Meyer/PW