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In May 2009, photo-essayist Gillian Laub published a piece in The New York Times that spotlighted the racially segregated homecoming and prom of a high school in Montgomery County, Georgia. The article sparked such an intense national reaction that the community decided to integrate the ceremonies the next year. This won Laub few friends in the cloistered southern district, and when she went to film this follow-up documentary (an impressive first feature, executive produced by singer-songwriter John Legend), she met with a very hostile reception.
Forbidden to photograph the newly integrated prom, Laub decided to dig a little deeper into Montgomery County’s recent history and stumbled upon two fascinating stories: the shooting death of black 22-year-old Justin Patterson by white 66-year-old Norman Neesmith, and the campaign by black police chief Calvin Burns to become the county’s first African-American sheriff.
Laub intertwines the two stories throughout the documentary, though it’s the Patterson-Neesmith situation that most captivates. Much of this has to do with the knotty circumstances surrounding this terrible, tragic act. Laub cannily introduces Neesmith in a way that makes him seem like the epitome of the stereotypical Southern racist: ill-spoken, obese, with a bulbous, rosacea-infected nose that initially gives him a cartoonish, country-bumpkin effect. It’s a calculated way to get the audience’s knee-jerk liberal dander up before the film starts adding complicating shades of gray.
Read more: John Legend: Racism Is “Killing Our Kids”
Neesmith, it turns out, is already something of a pariah in the community because he raised his mixed-race niece Danielle from infancy without a second thought. How does one reconcile this very selfless and forward-thinking act with the one that occurred on January 29, 2011, when Neesmith shot Patterson in what he presumed was a home invasion? In truth, Patterson and his brother Sha’von had been invited by then 18-year-old Danielle and another friend to hang out, make out and smoke pot. Neesmith, so he says, didn’t realize that the two boys were just involved in some teenage indiscretion when he stumbled upon them and held them at gunpoint. None of this changes the fact that yet another black boy lies dead at the hands of a white man.
The further Laub follows the story, the thornier it gets, and the deeper one empathizes with all involved. No person here is monster or martyr. That would be too easy. The real demons are the systemic prejudices that have ruled this community for generations (the love of guns; the general political favoring of white over black; the belief that skin color is a line in the sand as opposed to an accident of birth), and which gnaw away at individual integrity.
But still, they are a community, and the Burns sections of the film, which chronicle the efforts of the police chief’s daughter, Keyke, to get her father elected sheriff, solidify this. Keyke also has a connection to the Patterson case — she considered Justin her first love — and there’s a subtle sense that his death inspired her to become more politically active. There are moments when it feels like Laub is giving this thread short shrift, treating it like a disposable B-plot to the Patterson-Neesmith story.
In toto, however, it helps clarify Southern Rites‘ larger points about Montgomery County’s ingrained biases, which don’t always reveal themselves on the surface. Burns and his family are actually much-beloved figures in the community (during one of Keyke’s outreach runs, both white and black residents greet her with familiarity and friendliness), and he would appear a shoo-in for the job, especially against his opponent who has little law-enforcement experience. But of course it doesn’t play out that way. Several eras worth of bigotry and injustice see to that. Nonetheless, Laub unearths some sense of hope in the mere act of witnessing people chipping away at the racist foundations undergirding Montgomery County.
As it goes here, the film seems to say, so goes the nation.
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