Preview: From a divided Georgia prom, HBO’s “Southern Rites” captures the struggle to face race

Southern Rites was born out of a photo essay that turned into a larger story.
Southern Rites was born out of a photo essay that turned into a larger story.
Southern Rites was born out of a photo essay that turned into a larger story.
Southern Rites was born out of a photo essay that turned into a larger story.

When photographer Gillian Laub came to Georgia’s Montgomery County in 2009 to snap pictures of prom goers, she never realized she would be back in town the following year — about to make a movie. 

Premiering tonight on HBO, Southern Rites looks at events that took place in the small community just after a controversy surrounding the high school prom that divided into one prom for white students and a separate one for black students. 

Going to Montgomery County was a typical-enough assignment for Laub, who has traveled the world professionally for 15 years. She had been sent by The New York Times to do a photo-essay on the proms, and her subsequent photos led to a national uproar. The community eventually decided to have one prom instead, and when Laub came back the following year to photograph it, she was surprised by other local happenings.

Just as the area’s first African-American candidate, police chief Calvin Burns, was running for sheriff of Montgomery County, a nearby shooting took place that resulted in the death of 22-year-old African-American Justin Patterson at the hands of an older white man, Norman Neesmith. 

Gillian Laub
Gillian Laub

Justin and his younger brother, Sha’von, were invited to the home of Danielle Neesmith. Her father, Norman Neesmith, woke up in the middle of the night and he shot at the boys and killed Justin as the two young men fled.

Eventually Neesmith went through a trial that divided the town and is chronicled in Southern Rites. Produced by Oscar-winning musician John Legend, the film includes interviews with Neesmith and his legal team, Patterson’s family, Keyke Burns — the daughter of Calvin and a former girlfriend of Justin — and Danielle, who lives with the guilt of inviting Justin to her home.  

Laub was in Atlanta last week for the premiere of the film at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, along with some of Justin’s family members. One of her goals was to honor his memory.  

It never crossed her mind what all her photo assignment would lead to. “You go into something to discover and learn; you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “I didn’t know it would take me on a long journey, but I am happy it did.”

When she realized how complicated the situation had become, she knew it needed to be more than just a photo essay. At first she believed it could be a multimedia piece or a video installation but then knew it needed to be a documentary. 

“I do believe in the still-image ability to tell and speak volumes, but there was something about this story that necessitated film,” she says. She had no means or skills to become a director overnight, but adapted. 

As a photographer, Laub realized she was already a storyteller. “I have always interviewed everyone I photographed,” she says. “You’re behind the camera, working with people. It’s just that you have to learn different tools.” 

Norman and Danielle
Norman and Danielle Neesmith at the epicenter.

In 2010 she started filming and was in the area for months interviewing and talking to townspeople. One of the things that surprised her was that while the prom situation drew national news, Justin’s death produced smaller headlines. 

Based out of New York, she had been to the South before briefly but never extensively. “I came in as an outsider,” she says. “Maybe that is the fascination a bit. But the community did feel like it could be anywhere. I focused on one community. There are lots of communities I could have spent 10 years in and discovered complicated stories.”

The director’s quest isn’t to find an elusive answer for what happened but to start a dialogue about these kinds of issues. What happened in south Georgia could have happened — and does happen — anywhere in the country. 

“It’s still here, but it’s everywhere,” Laub says. “It just masks itself in different ways. This is not a Southern issue; it’s a national issue.”

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