In 2009, photographer Gillian Laub published a series of photos documenting the high school proms in the tiny Georgia community of Montgomery County, which was remarkable because the proms were racially segregated. Though the students grew up together, played together, and went to Montgomery County High together, there had been two separate proms—one for white students, one for black students—since the high school was integrated in 1971. “It’s how it’s always been,” one student told the New York Times. “It’s just a tradition.”
When the prom finally integrated in 2010, Laub returned to further document it, but instead she wound up uncovering a more profound, devastating story of how virulent underlying racism, “just tradition,” upended a closeknit but troubled community. She found “a more complicated story,” as she puts it in the subject of her excellent new documentary, Southern Rites, which carefully, significantly reports the murder of Justin Patterson, an unarmed black 22-year-old, by Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man. And more complicated, it certainly was.
Though Laub is ostensibly a photographer—a talent that emerges in the angles and light she captures—she’s got a journalist’s sensibility of reporting and a storyteller’s skill at teasing out the situation’s nuances. The night Patterson was killed, he and his younger brother were at Neesmith’s house visiting his daughter and her friends, a biracial teenager named Danielle born to his niece and who he’d been caring for from infancy. It was late at night; they b
rought weed. [CORRECTION: it is unclear whether the boys brought the weed, or if the girls already had it.] Justin’s brother, 18, had sex with another girl at the house, just 15. At some point, Neesmith was roused from sleep and discovered the boys in his home. There is some dispute over what happened next, but what they can agree on is that as the Patterson brothers tried to escape, Neesmith fired four shots from a .22 caliber gun. One hit Justin Patterson in the side. He died in a field, in his brother’s arms.
Neesmith talks at length about how having a black daughter cost him some friends in the small, segregated county—he brings that part up as if to absolve him from the viewer’s inference that he was another racist “good ol’ boy” in a town where white denizens wear Confederate flags as a point of “Southern pride.” The pacing with which Laub reveals this is brilliant, layers of nuance slowly peeled back to reveal the deepest roots. Neesmith also spends much of the documentary defending his actions and assailing Patterson’s character at the same time, saying he shouldn’t have been there at 3 in the morning, that he shouldn’t have “brought dope” (a marijuana blunt) into Neesmith’s home. Which, sure, you can argue that, but in Patterson’s brother’s account, Neesmith held them “hostage” and told them that he could shoot them both and “nobody would care.”
Sha’von Patterson holding a photo of himself and his brother, Justin. Image via Gillian Laub/HBO.
Southern Rites is a powerful statement in the era of #blacklivesmatter, especially since Neesmith embodies a perfect example of how America’s foundational racism affects and clouds the views of literally everyone, even those who may think they do not harbor racial prejudice. Neesmith repeatedly insists he would have shot Patterson in the same situation even if he were white, and you can tell he really believes it. But of course that’s not necessarily true—he also invokes the vacant, pervasive, literally deadly specter/trope of the big, scary black man that persistently rears its head after shootings like this, from George Zimmerman to Darren Wilson Neesmith describes Patterson as muscular and athletic compared to Neesmith’s disability, with the capability of beating him in a fight. (That aspect was invoked in the court, too—his defense attorney, in an interview with Laub: “I don’t want to call him feeble, but...”)
While Southern Rites hinges on the shooting, trial, and aftermath, its parallel stories help paint a complete portrait of the ways that racism, “just tradition,” affects the County. Keyke Burns, Patterson’s first love and prom date in Laub’s initial photo series, is a featured subject—as the trial plays out, her father runs a campaign to be Montgomery County’s first-ever black sheriff, with the implication that should he win, the area has a fighting chance for real, if incremental, change. Meanwhile, Patterson’s family and friends—including the young mother of his baby daughter—are fighting, hoping, and praying for justice for Justin, even printing that phrase on t-shirts embossed with his face, the memorial t-shirt that so many people across the country find themselves having to print. It’s these aspects that render Southern Rites all the more tragic, because they’re so relatable, so pervasive, and so “complicated,” as Laub prefaced it—not just inside a tiny Georgia county, population 8000, but in every county in America.
Southern Rites is airing now on HBO.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.