Southern Rites, which premieres May 18 on HBO, is a timely documentary. And if it had been released on any May 18 in the cable network’s history, it would have been just as timely. Director/photographer Gillian Laub’s film explores the entrenched racism that is still present in some American communities, and the continued double standards of a legal system that so firmly marginalizes African-Americans. It is a documentary that could feel redundant due to how often these issues and themes continue to permeate through some sections of American society, but Southern Rites is still urgent and impassioned, if somewhat disjointed, filmmaking.
When Laub first covered issues of prejudice in the Georgian county of Montgomery, it was as a photographer for the New York Times Magazine. In 2009, the community decided to have two proms on consecutive nights: the first night was for white students, the second night for their black classmates. Scorned by the community, she returned to document the re-integration there in 2010, but it backfired. Searching for a new angle, Laub found a powerful, penetrating story in the town of Mount Vernon nearby.
One late night in January 2011, 22-year-old Justin Patterson and his younger brother Shavon – both African-American – snuck into the house of a new friend of Justin’s. Her name was Danielle, and she was the black adopted daughter of Norman Neesmith, a white man. Norman overheard the two young men in his house and approached them with a gun he kept in his nightstand. As the Patterson brothers tried to run away and out into the woods, Norman fired four times. The second shot struck Justin in his side. Moments later, he was dead.
Many true-crime docs would structure this story as a thriller and tell it chronologically, with the action building as the trial approached and a divided community had to sort out the pieces of the aftermath. Southern Rites eschews this approach; instead, Laub reveals to us early on that Norman is still living on his own, rocking in a chair on his porch and able to walk around the community freely. (In one scene, he speeds down the road on his motorcycle. A sticker on his helmet reads, “I live life my way.”)
We learn about the result of the trial and the devastating reaction among Justin’s family and a large swath of the town in the first half, reducing the suspense. Why create overwrought tension when the end result doesn’t feel like much of a surprise? In counties like the one depicted in Southern Rites, the song remains the same: judicial bias favors the white predator over the black victim. As one character mentions, if the shooter had been black and the target white, the verdict would likely be different. Furthermore, instead of the trial focusing on Norman’s lack of restraint with his firearm, many of the details brought up in court involve the marijuana both Pattersons had in their system at the time of the shooting, plus the illegality of Shavon having sex with a 15-year-old at Danielle’s home.
Southern Rites is poignant and powerful, and unsurprisingly so, given the emotionally wrenching interviews the director has with many of Justin’s relatives and friends. One could accuse Laub of taking sides, as the moving tributes from the victim’s family are starkly contrasted with Norman’s testimony – which, although apologetic, reiterates his disdain for the young man’s actions and shows the lack of severity he felt firing a shotgun. (A more illuminating interview comes when Laub speaks to Danielle, torn between her dual allegiances.) However, why should a documentarian treat both sides of a case with equal emotional weight if the subject of her film is the persistently unfair treatment of one particular side?
If the doc feels unpolished and disjointed, it is from a corresponding subplot. Eight miles from where Justin was shot, Calvin Burns, a long-standing police chief, campaigned to be the country’s first black sheriff. Burns explains that reaching this precedent is not the point; however, nobody else in the community seems to share that sentiment. In a country where the commander-in-chief is black, getting to a precipice like that in a racially charged community is a big deal. The story about Burns’ electoral race is certainly fascinating, although Laub only returns to it sporadically. It’s the film’s subplot but its depiction feels too slight. The director may have been wiser to trim this story down into a footnote of the main subject or expand it to be a more significant reflector of the county’s racial divide.
Southern Rites closes with the Tupac Shakur song “Changes,” modeled after Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is.” In the chorus, one recurring lyric is “Some things will never change.” Another one is, “Things’ll never be the same.” It is this contrast that has become so customary in the era of Obama, a time that promised extraordinary opportunity for so many but, as usual, has only kept the status quo for underprivileged Americans. Gillian Laub’s film doesn’t only feel timely, but timeless. While that isn’t necessarily a problem with the direction of the film, it is a dour note to reiterate. Nevertheless, it is an important story to expose and explore, and Laub does so with compassion.
Urgent, if sometimes muddled, Southern Rites is a powerful look at the entrenched racism of the Deep South.