"Southern Rites" Explores Issues of Race in a Southeast Georgia Community

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15 May 2015
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Southern Rites
Photo: Gillian Laub/Courtesy of HBO
 "Southern Rites"
Debuts Monday, May 18 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT exclusively on HBO
 
            "Southern Rites" follows photographer Gillian Laub as she returns to the Georgia community where she documented segregated proms in photographs that garnered national attention when they were published in 2009. The proms are now integrated, but in the aftermath of a fatal shooting of a young black man and in the midst of a heated local election, the community still grapples with issues of race that extend well beyond the school.

            Laub returned to Montgomery County to document a newly integrated prom and an historic campaign to elect its first African-American sheriff. While she was there filming, in the early hours of Jan. 29, 2011, a shooting occurred at the home of Norman Neesmith, an older white resident. Neesmith called the police to report that he had shot Justin Patterson, a young black man who had been invited over late in the evening by Neesmith’s adopted daughter. Patterson died at the scene.

            Laub was surprised to realize that Patterson’s death did initially not receive national news coverage. She set out to tell the story, gaining intimate access to individuals connected to the incident, including the young man’s grieving family and friends, as well as Norman Neesmith, his adopted daughter, Danielle, and his legal team.

            As the divisive case unfolds, Laub also chronicles the campaign of police chief Calvin Burns to become Montgomery County’s first black sheriff eight miles away. Burns’ daughter, Keyke, who says Justin Patterson was her first love, works to elect her father, and is outspoken about the community’s racial divide.

 

            "Southern Rites" features revealing interviews with people involved in both stories, who offer complex reflections on how well-worn racial lines may have informed the outcome of both events. The film closes as students prepare for a newly merged prom, capturing them happily dancing and celebrating together.

            Laub explains, “I am hoping the film can start conversations that are really hard to have, but are necessary in order for us to move forward.” Executive producer John Legend, who lends a new song, “We Still Believe,” to the documentary, remarks, “By the end of the film, you see some sense that people might start coming together, so that gives me some hope.”

                        Gillian Laub, a well-known visual artist whose photographs have appeared in TIME and the New Yorker, has spent more than a decade documenting disparate cultures around the world, from the Middle East to the Deep South, through vivid, iconic portraits. She received Nikon’s Storyteller Award in 2005. In addition to making her directorial debut with the documentary, Laub’s other “Southern Rites” projects include a photography book and an exhibit opening May 14 at Benrubi Gallery in New York.

            Directed by Laub and executive produced by Oscar®-winning musician John Legend, the timely documentary debuts MONDAY, MAY 18 (9:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT), the week of the 61st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, exclusively on HBO.
            Other HBO playdates: May 18 (4:30 a.m.), 21 (10:00 a.m., 5:15 p.m.), 25 (10:30 a.m.) and 26 (1:30 p.m.), and June 6 (2:00 p.m.)
            Other HBO2 playdates: May 20 (10:00 p.m.), 28 (10:30 a.m., 12:30 a.m.) and 31 (1:00 p.m.), and June 15 (10:00 a.m.) and 23 (12:45 p.m.)
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