Freeman says kids in his southern U.S. hometown 'warped' by racism

In this photograph taken by AP Images for USA TODAY, Morgan Freeman, left, and Ashley Judd attend the Fourth Annual USA TODAY Hollywood Hero Award Gala honoring Ashley Judd at the Montage Beverly Hills on November 11, 2009 in Beverly Hills, CA. (Vince Bucci / AP Images for USA TODAY)

OAKVILLE, Ont. - Morgan Freeman says he agreed to participate in a Canadian-made documentary about his Mississippi hometown because he felt that children there were being "warped" by racism.

The Oscar-winning actor is in the Toronto area promoting, "Prom Night In Mississippi," about a racially divided high school in his hometown of Charleston, Miss.

"It's a political effort," Freeman said Thursday of the film while reclining on a couch in a home in Oakville, Ont., owned by friends of doc director Paul Saltzman.

"I see damage being done to children's psyche, southern children, Mississippi children."

"These children are being damaged, these kids are being warped and unless they can wriggle out of it on their own they won't get out of it, they won't change."

Until last spring, the town's lone high school was perhaps best distinguished by a well-entrenched tradition of holding segregated proms.

But that changed last year when Freeman offered to pay for the students' final formal - as long as it was racially integrated.

The students agreed, but as Saltzman discovered, not everyone in the town was comfortable with the idea. If anything, Freeman's offer ignited a renewed fervour among white parents intent on maintaining the school's ignoble tradition.

Saltzman's documentary follows Freeman as he pitches the plan to the Delta town's school board and follows the blossoming determination of a group of teens increasingly aware that their rite of passage could change the course of history.

In many cases, the more enlightened students must defy their parents to celebrate as a single class.

White teenager Jessica says in the film that she'd be beaten for socializing outside of her race while the black senior Jeremy reveals he's had a white girlfriend since Grade 7 but that the two have never socialized outside of school. One senior, identified only as "Billy Joe," speaks on camera only when his identity is concealed, believing his racist parents would disown him if they knew his true feelings.

"Most of the kids had never wanted segregated proms," noted Saltzman, who spent the summer of 1965 in the Mississippi Delta doing voter registration work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

"That was much more the parental tradition."

The first integrated prom took place in 2008, and Saltzman says the high school held another one earlier this year. He's confident that the seeds of revolution are taking root in the town of 2,000.

"I have no doubt that this has changed the community, the very fact that there is an integrated prom right away changes the community and will have its reverberations," he said.

"Now the tradition of the segregated proms is broken, there is no black prom anymore."

Freeman, dressed casually in a blue sweatshirt and light blue jeans and speaking in a slow and deliberate tone he's famous for, said it's now up to Charleston's most recent high school graduates to enlighten the rest of their isolated, rural community.

"The change will be what the kids do after school," said Freeman, who has also used his celebrity status to help raise funds for Bill Luckett, an attorney seeking the Democratic nomination for Mississippi governor.

"Once they're out they'll define the status quo. They will."

The 72-year-old actor, whose left hand was limp and swaddled in a tan glove due to injuries sustained in an August 2008 car crash, next appears in the Nelson Mandela film, "Invictus," directed by Clint Eastwood.

Also starring Matt Damon as rugby team captain Francois Pienaar, the historical drama follows the crucial early months of Mandela's presidency.

"Prom Night In Mississippi" opens in Toronto on Friday, Vancouver on Nov. 20 and Montreal on Dec. 4.