In 2009, New York-based photographer Gillian Laub ventured into two small counties in southeast Georgia to document the area’s still-segregated high school proms. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because the segregated prom story gained national attention in The New York Times.) Two years later, Laub returned to Georgia to document the town’s racial progress, including the election campaign of an African-American sheriff.
While Laub was in town, a Black 22-year-old man was fatally shot by a white man, dividing locals along their well-worn racial lines.
HBO’s new documentary, Southern Rites, directed by Laub and executive-produced by John Legend, delves deep into the complicated racial tensions still beleaguering the Southern town.
“I seriously felt like these were stories that just needed to be told, and the more [the community] pushed me away, the more I realized how important and necessary it is to get out in the world and be talked about,” Laub said on Monday evening at a New York screening.
In 2011, Norman Neesmith’s great-niece, who was living with her uncle, invited Justin Patterson and his younger brother to their house. Neesmith woke up, saw the men in his home and grabbed his gun. He demanded the two explain why they were there. As the brothers attempted to run out the back door, Neesmith fired his gun, wounding Patterson, who died in a nearby field.
The twist? Neesmith’s niece is black.
“There was a killing of a young, unarmed black boy that wasn’t being reported on,” said Laub. “ I couldn’t handle the injustice. I couldn’t handle it.”
Determined to expose the truth about this tragedy, Laub traded her tripod for a video camera and began teaching herself the basics of filmmaking. Using her newfound skills, she thoroughly examined the shooting, aftermath, and trial in the slaying of Patterson.
“This film doesn’t give easy, tidy answers,” Laub said.
That it doesn’t. As more and more layers come to light, viewers quickly see that the problems in the town run deeper than just skin color—not everything is black and white.
Legend, also at the screening, thought that the documentary could spark new conversations in today’s racially charged environment. “When we talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ this film is an embodiment of that,” Legend said, “because it really shows the impact that killing a young Black man has on the family, on the community, and it really does matter.”
Don’t miss Southern Rites, which premieres Monday, May 18 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.