When photojournalist Gillian Laub, began making a film about segregated proms in Georgia, she had no idea that her piece would turn into a much bigger expose on racial bias and crime in America.
Laub, the photojournalist who brought a small-town high school in Georgia that still held segregated proms in 2008 to the public’s attention, returned to the town in 2010 to document their first integrated prom after much public brouhaha. Although the high school had been integrated since 1971, the senior prom had been kept segregated until it became nationally notorious. While many people in the town supposedly considered the segregated prom simply, “tradition,” it reveals much more.
What Laub actually ended up documenting, was the reality of a racist town where a young, unarmed 22-year-old Black man, Justin Patterson, was murdered by a 62-year-old White man named Norman Neesmith.
Southern Rites, the title of the documentary, premiered on HBO Monday night.
The story unfolds with Patterson and his brother having sex with underage girls in Neesmith’s house – one of whom was Neesmith’s adopted daughter, a biracial girl named Danielle. Upon realizing that all was not well under his roof, Neesmith – though the details are not all consistent – allegedly went after the boys and ended up shooting and killing Patterson, while he and his brother attempted to flee.
It is a film that will have people on different sides of America’s race discussion shifting in their seats. Certainly, it would be very easy to look at the situation as Black and White – no pun intended. And some people will. Some will argue plainly that what the father did was completely acceptable – not only because Patterson was having sex with underage girls, but because one could, in theory, make a legal argument about trespassing, even though that is not what this case is about. On the other hand, there can be plain arguments too that at the end of the day, Neesmith should have had the authorities deal with it the best way they could.
I am not particularly comfortable with any assessment that serves to make simplistic arguments in complicated contexts. Murder – the taking of human life in any form – is wrong, is a plain and simple moral belief that I hold. That the father may have been in such a rage that his reaction may be justified, is not a position that I am willing to take because of that primary belief about human life. Even where I may admit that argument will resonate with some. And indeed, I have to consider that a White man shot an unarmed Black man, even in this context, is racialized and political in nature. Especially because of the ways in which that Georgia town’s segregation is perpetuated. But unlike situations where armed White men, whether in uniforms of authority or not, kill unarmed Black men, there is a lot more to unpack here that is more complicated than the victim versus perpetrator; the innocent versus the guilty.
In the documentary, you may hold sympathies for Neesmith. Especially when it is revealed that his bi-racial daughter cost him his reputation or standing in the racist community where he resides. Perhaps it was an attempt to distance himself from not being like the “other White people” in the community who are racist or who in their own imagination, are not racist but believe in segregation. Or what they refer to as, “The southern way.” On the flip side, Patterson’s brother who survived to tell the tale, informs viewers of an account where Neesmith threatened both him and his brother after holding them hostage. That means there was time to call upon the authorities to deal with the situation.
I am still wrapping my head around the story that Laub has shown us in this film. What is the conscious viewer supposed to decide? That Neesmith was right? Or that even if he was wrong, what he did was “understandable?” And if the latter is true, is that a function of White privilege or was Neesmith wrong because he may have taken a different course of action that could have seen Patterson punished but at least not dead? Or do we know not enough to judge this case?
My conscious and consciousness tell me that this story is one that reveals a lot more about the viewer than it does about the people in the story. While I think that the heart of the facts of the case cannot exist in a vacuum – the racism that exists in the town is part and parcel of it. I also think that the story reveals to us about who we – the American public – often tend to believe in stories about crime and punishment. The story reveals whose bodies earn our sympathies and empathy. The story reveals what we think about who deserves to live, and in what circumstances.
Indeed, I return to my first moral principle: taking away human life is wrong, even in this case (or perhaps especially so) because of Patterson’s essential statutory rape. Your beliefs are most important when they are put between a rock and a hard place. And I can say that in this place, I still believe that Patterson’s life mattered enough not to be taken away like that. His punishment should have been severe but it should not have amounted to death. You might disagree. Watch Southern Rites if you can, and find out what you believe.