HBO Documentary Films: SOUTHERN RITES

By Jef Dinsmore on May 20, 2015 to Documentaries

Doc-logoOverview: 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.

Docs_SouternRites_titleDirected by Laub and executive produced by Oscar-winning musician John Legend, the timely documentary returns Laub 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. 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.  

The documentary 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.


Expectations: Just from the details of the Overview it appears that this documentary is taking on a lot. There are three plotlines melding together here: newly integrated proms, the campaign for local sheriff and a murder case & trial. On the surface they all appear to be separate issues, but Laub ties them all together as examples of the state of racial tensions that linger in this country’s Deep South. I will be looking for just how she ties all her threads together for a cohesive documentary on old southern rites.


Gut Reaction: SOUTERN RITES is an interesting documentary that raises a lot of questions and tries to paint an image of Montgomery County Georgia. With all the facets of this piece thrown at the viewer in 85-minutes it comes down to sifting through it and making some determinations for oneself after it is over. I have done so and don’t know if I can or even want to weigh through everything in this post. If you want to be challenged into thinking about it all then watch if for yourself. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I watched it, but there is so much, almost too much in it.

The initial publicity and approach to this film is the whole story point of the school district proms. Laub went to document the segregated proms and turned that experience into printed articles in major newspapers and magazines. That put enough heat on the county that the following year, 2010, the first integrated prom was held. And they hated Laub’s return to document it and banned her from doing so. She was filming out her car window when the sheriff reached in and seized her camera. She concluded that Montgomery County did not want the rest of the States to see how they live down there, thus making her more determined to find out what they had to hide.Doc_SouthernRites_02

My biggest problem with the documentary however, is that the film maker tries to skew everything to old racial prejudices still boiling in the Georgia heat. There is no question that racial tensions exist there, but to elude that it drives everything that is wrong there is stupid. Do I believe that it was for racial reasons that a black man did not win the election for sheriff over someone with no experience? Yes, yes I do. Do I believe that the death of Justin Patterson was racially motivated? No, I don’t. Do I think the film maker was trying to make a loose connection that it was? Yes. They are all interesting stories in their own right, but to weakly tie them together as the shocking horrors hidden in the underbelly of the nation is wrong.

The plot line of the election was nothing surprising. That Calvin Burns did not win it is the end and was denied a recount is suspect, but it happens in elections all over the country. And though he lost based on racial reasons is a sad commentary, it is not an uncommon one. As for the larger story line about the shooting of someone – it was a mistake on everyone’s part and a tragedy all around. The D.A. stated it as such. It is simple.

The film maker’s one response really got my hackles up. Not any interviewed person, mind you, but the documentarian. Picture this – unidentified persons wake you up in your home at 3:00am using illegal substances and sex with a minor. (Big Mistake # 1) You put a stop to it and try to detain them until authorities come (that is not a mistake). They flee. You fire off your pistol at the fleeing youths eventually fatally shooting one of them (Big Mistake # 2). What got my ire up is when the film SouthernRites_01maker actually said to the D. A. that it was just kids being kids and didn’t we all do reckless behavior like it when we were young! That was condoning the youth’s behavior and made me dislike Laub from then on. It tainted the rest of my behavior towards her.


In Conclusion: That just scraps the tip of the iceberg about what is revealed in SOUTHERN RITES. It is worth exploring. It is worth debating. Is there racial strife in Montgomery County? Yes, but this documentary didn’t quite do the issue justice.              

Watch it for yourself and debate me below. Other HBO playdates: 05.21 at 10:00am & 5:15pm, 05.25 at 10:30am and 05.26 at 1:30pm. Plus it is on HBOGo/HBONow.


Next Week: On MONDAY, MAY 25, Memorial Day, HBO will give an encore presentation of HBO Documentary Films: BAGHDAD ER beginning at 7:45pm. It is the Emmy winning film about the difficult and harrowing work that happened at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq. It chronicles the doctors and nurses there and the wounded and dying that arrive. A hard documentary to watch, but one so appropriate for the day.

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