Film. ‘Southern Rites.’ Documentary Explores Issues of Race in Two Small Georgia Towns. Reveals a Murder Mystery.
In 2004, photographer and filmmaker Gillian Laub visited a high school in Montgomery County, Georgia, approximately 150 miles outside of Atlanta, to document a segregated prom at the local high school. The photo series, which was featured in the New York Times, garnered a strong public response that pushed the school to finally integrate its prom.
When Laub returned to the country in 2010 to document the historic moment, she was met with opposition from the local residents. Laub also came to the town at a pivotal time, and soon discovered that the county’s racial issues ran much deeper than its formerly segregated prom.
The filmmaker stumbled into two major controversies — the shooting of Justin Patterson, a young, unarmed, black man by an older white man, and black law enforcement official campaigning to become the country’s first black sheriff. These two events became a central part of the documentary that Laub created, Southern Rites.
Laub tells People Magazine, that she felt these stories needed to be told,
Laub reached out to Justin Patterson’s mother, Deedee Clarke, who was reluctant to speak at first.
“For one thing, the D.A. had told me and my ex-husband that it was best that we didn’t talk about the case,” Clarke tells PEOPLE. “So we didn’t talk about the case because he was the D.A., and we thought he was on our side.”
But after the trial was postponed several times, Clarke began to feel that Laub was the only person who wanted to help.
“I wanted everybody to know that my son Justin had died and nobody cared,” she says.
“[Justin] died right at the uprising of all of these high-profile cases, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown,” Clarke continued. “I remember watching television, and I was looking at the Trayvon Martin case, and I just remember looking at his mom thinking, ‘Wow, I know exactly how this lady feels; the pain is real.’ I knew what she was dealing with, but I thought at least everybody knows what happened to her son.”
“Unfortunately, I think that he’s one of many that we don’t hear about and haven’t heard about,” Laub says.
Neesmith’s lawyers told the photographer that the fact that Patterson’s case made it to court at all was “progress.”
“In this county, there are apparently five other stories of unarmed black men who were killed by older white men, and none of them made it into the courts,” Laub says.
John Legend, who served as executive producer for Southern Rites, emphasized the importance of the documentary and the dialogue that it can start.
“When we talk about black lives matter, this film is an embodiment of that,” Legend said.
Southern Rites is currently airing on HBO, check your local listings.