Georgia Southern Rites Sha’von Patterson, with a childhood photo of himself and his brother, Justin, in an HBO documentary that debuts Monday.
Gillian Laub / HBO
Gillian Laub, a photojournalist, came back from Georgia in 2009 with striking documentation of an open secret: segregated proms in Montgomery County. “A Prom Divided” ran in The New York Times Magazine a month later, and the pictures were so telling that the school district buckled and broke its longstanding tradition.
Ms. Laub returned the following year to record the high school’s first integrated prom on film. The county sheriff made sure that didn’t happen, by reaching into her car and wrestling the video camera out of her hands — the picture goes awry but we hear her shocked screeches.
Ms. Laub never made it to the prom that day, but she did return with a film, “Southern Rites.” This HBO documentary, which debuts on Monday, is a riveting look at something quite different but not entirely unrelated: the story of Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old black man who was shot and killed by an older white man, Norman Neesmith, in a neighboring county in 2011.
Or, as Ms. Laub puts it, “Then I stumbled on a more complicated story.”
What happened to Justin, his family, his friends and his killer is complicated, but at its core the case is actually quite simple. In a calm, understated tone, “Southern Rites” digs deep to expose the roots that have made segregated proms and other affronts possible. “Southern Rites” is a portrait of the inequities that lead to disaster on the streets of cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.
This area of Georgia, more than 150 miles south of Atlanta, is small, rural and insular, the kind of place where a woman wears a large Confederate flag on the back of her leather jacket and a church billboard reads, “Don’t let Satan trick you into hell.”
The first time we hear Norman’s voice is on a 911 call. The dispatcher asks what’s wrong. He replies, “Well, I had a little trouble out here a while ago.”
He was referring to Justin, whom he had just shot dead after finding him inside his house with Danielle, 18, whom Norman considered his daughter. Justin and Danielle were old friends who had reconnected on Facebook a few days earlier. Danielle, along with a 15-year-old friend, invited Justin and his younger brother, Sha’von, to come over. After a spell of partying, the revelers paired off into different bedrooms.
When Norman woke up in the middle of the night, he discovered what was happening and ordered the two strangers to come out, then at gunpoint told them to sit down on his living room couch. Sha’von ran; Justin followed and was shot while trying to leave the house. Norman says he was planning to call the police, but when the brothers took off, “everything backfired, everything backfired.”
Ms. Laub’s camera comes in close and stays there, letting her subjects fill the silence. Norman, who at times looks haunted, other times indignant, says prejudice had nothing to do with it. Danielle, whose father was black, is the daughter of his niece, who left her with Norman when Danielle was in diapers. Norman raised Danielle as his own child and was shunned for it by some of his neighbors. He insists that he had allowed Danielle to have black friends over before, just not without permission at 3 a.m.
To Norman, the Patterson brothers were trouble-seeking trespassers who made him fear for his life. What happened was tragic, Norman and his defenders in the film say, but if anyone is to blame, it’s Justin, who should have known better.
To Justin’s mother, brother, friends and neighbors, Justin was a young man being young. He was Danielle’s guest, not an intruder; when he was killed he was a hostage held at gunpoint.
They say Norman had no reason to be afraid of Justin, who was friendly, popular, had a baby girl of his own and was attending college. A family friend says that if a black man killed a white man under the same circumstances, he wouldn’t live long enough to face trial.
As the film unveils what happens once the criminal justice system weighs in, it also weaves into the mix a local election campaign. Calvin Burns, the county’s first black chief of police, is running for sheriff, an office that also had previously been held only by whites. It’s a historic event and he seems like a shoo-in. For one thing, his opponent has no law enforcement experience.
But Chief Burns explains that his part of Georgia is not like other places. “People in Michigan, New York, Virginia, they ain’t got a clue what we’re talkin’ about,” he says. “You got to come here and live — to understand.”
“Southern Rites” brings the point home.