The opening scenes of Gillian Laub’s documentary, Southern Rites, are photos of prom. Teenage boys wear suits, tuxedos, and grins; the girls wear elaborate and expensive dresses, artfully applied makeup, curls, straightened locks, complicated updos, and corsages. The teens sparkle. Their anticipation for the prom, the hallowed annual dance-to-end-all-dances that happens in high schools across the nation, is palpable.
Laub, however, isn’t documenting prom as a national phenomenon, but the particular prom of Montgomery County, Georgia, population: 9,123. Almost every year since the high school was integrated in 1971, there have been two separate proms, White and Black, often held in the same community center on consecutive nights. The dances are private events hosted by parents. The White prom excluded Black students while the other prom allowed anyone to attend. Black students requested school administrators hold a single prom, but their efforts failed until Laub made the segregated prom national news.
“Prom,” a student told Laub, “is the least of our worries.”
There’s hard truth in the dismissal of prom’s, segregated or integrated, importance. Segregated prom might be the reason we pay passing attention to what happens in the rural South, yet it isn’t the reason Laub decided to film. The murder of a young Black man, Justin Patterson, by an old White man, Norman Neesmith, in the nearby Toombs county is the central story of Southern Rites.
Prom originally brought Laub to the small Georgia county in 2002. In 2009, her photo essay capturing segregation of the dance appeared in the New York Times Magazine and caused quite a stir. How could segregation and blatant racism still exist in Obama’s America? The controversy led Laub to pursue a larger documentary project about the integration of the Montgomery County prom in 2010, a hopeful story of reconciliation and progress. Yet, Southern Rites is not a hopeful story. Pictures of prom become the bookends for the film, but Laub investigates Patterson’s murder, an election, and these racially-divided Southern communities. Its story is simultaneously disturbing and remarkably familiar.
Montgomery and Toombs county appears to us in images: worn-down houses with porches, rocking chairs, mobile homes, jacked-up trucks, dirt roads, church signs warning of divine punishment, workers picking onions in the fields, an old white woman wearing a jacket emblazoned with the Confederate flag, paved streets lined with fast food chains, mansions residing on former plantations, old men fishing, determined teens, failed industry, racial tensions, and crushing poverty. These places stand in for the larger South. Stereotypes about the region appear more in every shot. The South appears as what Laub expects it to be: rural, backward, racist, and dangerous.
The murder of a Black teen by a White man appears sadly commonplace. Patterson’s life and death haunt the film in his mother’s tears, his friend’s memorial tattoo, his father’s visible anguish, his brother’s solemn face, and his toddler daughter’s life without her father.
His family struggles to deal with his absence as well as the criminal justice system’s management of the case. “My baby is gone,” his mother, Deede, says. She repeats the phrase as she explains that her son shouldn’t be dead, but he is.
In early morning of January 29, 2011, Norman Neesmith heard an unexpected noise in his home. He grabbed a .22 pistol from beside his bed and went to check on his niece, Danielle, in her bedroom. After Neesmith fell asleep the evening before, the teenage Danielle and a friend invited Justin and his younger brother, Sha’von, to the house and encouraged them to park away from the house. Neesmith pulled the young men each out of the bedrooms and started yelling. What happened next is disputed. Sha’von claims that Neesmith threatened to kill them and pointed his gun toward them. Neesmith claims to have felt threatened by physical presence of the brothers, but that he was only going to call the police. The Patterson brothers fled the house. Neesmith fired four shots, and the second shot hit Justin in his side. Sha’von fled to the nearby onion fields and called his mother. Neesmith called 911 for report the shooting: “I think I hurt one of them.”
Justin died in Neesmith’s yard. Neesmith was indicted on charges of felony murder, malice murder, kidnapping, and aggravated assault with a possible sentence of life in prison, plus 60 years.
His White lawyers described him as a “good guy,” who was very upset for taking someone’s life. Much of the White community thought Neesmith’s actions were justified. After all, he shot a young man, who (he claimed) didn’t have permission to be in his house. The Black residents tell a different story about the history of racism in the area and the ways in which older White citizens lament their previous dominance. Racial equality appears fleeting in a place that’s never had a Black sheriff. Laub intersperses images of the Ku Klux Klan and lynching with the interviews of Patterson’s aunt, who describes life before and after segregation ended. Racism is not a historical artifact; it never was. The white residents seem equally oblivious to the critiques of the segregated prom as they do to the possibility of racial motivation for Patterson’s murder. The district attorney offers a plea bargain in which Neesmith would serve only a year in a detention center. The judge agrees to the deal and ignores the tearful pleas of Patterson’s mother for justice.
Patterson’s father, Julius, laments, “It was like everybody made a bad decision that night.” The blame for the murder lies with the victim as well as murderer. Yet, one of those decisions, Neesmith’s choice to fire a gun multiple times, stands out. Everyone was not equally culpable, no matter what the White district attorney and judge suggest.
In its best moments, Southern Rites shows us the sheer Whiteness of the criminal justice system: White defense lawyers, a White district attorney, and a White judge who all chalk up a murder to a terrible mistake made by a White man. They blame the Black victim for the crime. They all refuse to admit that race could be a factor in the shooting. Neesmith, they tell us over and over again, can’t be racist because he raised his biracial niece. One of his lawyers explained that Neesmith was not the “old redneck who shot a Black kid,” but rather, a man who made a mistake. Laub presses the district attorney about the plea deal and its supposed fairness. He responds that it was a “tragic event across the board for everybody.”
Neesmith complains, “I’m still the bad guy.” I wonder how he could be anything less that that.
I’m struck by Laub’s ability to focus on Patterson and Neesmith as people, not as story book heroes or villains. She makes us see Patterson as a human being rather than just another dead body. She shows us why his life matters more than his death. She also forces us to see Neesmith as equally human. We hear him recount the murder is his own words. We watch as he tries to negotiate his guilt and frustration. He wants to be the real victim. He prays for Patterson’s parents. He can’t quite understand why he’s still in the hot seat.
I wanted to like Southern Rites. I wanted Laub to document not only the spectacular forms of racism, but also the more subtle forms. I wanted a story about the South that reflected racism with more complexity and nuance than those stories that regularly run in the New York Times about the “backward” South. Yet, I wonder what story she was trying to tell and to what audience. Was this voyeurism? Was she trying to save Montgomery and Toombs counties from their racism or shame them for it? Who was the documentary for? Why did this photographer have to go to the South to talk about racism?
As I watched, I doubted the film was meant for Southerners.
I’m from a similar place to Montgomery and Toombs counties in rural northern Florida. I was born and raised in Jackson County, Florida; I lived there for 20 years before I fled to nearby Tallahassee for college. These counties could be my home with the farms (peanuts and cotton rather than onions), churches, dirt roads, Confederate flags, racism, and poverty. Rich White people live in the big houses. I grew up in a trailer like many of other children, White and Black.
Jackson County schools were integrated in 1963, eight years before Montgomery County. Segregation still haunted the place. Teachers intervened to prohibit interracial dating. Honor classes were made of mostly White students. In 1998, I was a senior at Marianna High School, who went to prom in an expensive dress and blond curls. I couldn’t attend the dance with my boyfriend, who was Puerto Rican, because my parents forbid it. Instead, I went with a White friend. Everybody seemed happy, or we were good at faking it. That year, the seniors elected a Black prom queen, whom I had known since elementary school. I voted for her, though many other White students didn’t. White parents expressed their frustration about her wearing the crown. I cheered when they crowned her. There was a White prom king. When it was time for the prom king and queen to dance together, they danced with their dates instead. Our prom wasn’t segregated, but racial boundary policing was pervasive.
Prom was the least of our worries, though it reflected the racial tensions that dictated our lives. White parents made sure that White kids understood their lives as separate from their Black classmates. Middle class White parents relied on polite society and all of its norms to do the work for them. Working class White kids, like me, encountered offhand remarks, racist slurs, declarations of tradition, and the strict boundaries of whom we could love and befriend.
A segregated prom is the kind of story that shocks but also titillates white audiences outside of the South. Look, at the backward South, they say, the racism is so blatant and obvious. Southerners still have segregation and Confederate flags, they utter with horror. They whisper, Aren’t we so glad we don’t live there? The murder of a young Black man by a White man confirms the horror and their disdain. White people can distance themselves from their own racism by saying “at least our proms are integrated” as white police officers shoot Black people in their own regions. The South looms large in all of our discussions of race in America, but racism doesn’t dwell solely here.
Laub reinforces images of the South as an exceptionally racist place. Conjuring the backward, racist South allows White people elsewhere in the country to distance themselves from structures of racism that made Whiteness into a privilege. Racism happens somewhere else, not where they live, so stories like Southern Rites reassure, rather than challenge, them.
I yearned for something beyond shots of the Confederate flag and historical photos of the KKK to contextualize how private proms endured and why Patterson’s murderer ended up with a light sentence. The histories of these counties surely inform current events, but Laub never shows us how. Are these the only stories that we have to tell about racism? No. Then, why are these the stories that we latch onto? Who benefits for these portrayals of South?
The image of a backward, racist South gets us nowhere. It confirms what people outside of the South already believe. It doesn’t tell us a story we need to hear. Racism is not limited to this region. Southerners need to talk and act against racism if we want to create a better South. We surely need one, but Southern Rites misses an opportunity for conversation by relying on easy stereotypes. We need better documentaries than this. We need them now more than ever.