When photographer and director Gillian Laub returned to Montgomery County, Ga., a small community which held segregated proms until 2009, she was expecting to document racial progress in a region that appeared to be frozen in time. (Laub’s New York Times photo essay shed light on the archaic, segregated proms and forced the community to change.) However, what she uncovered was a community still struggling with racial divisions as well as economic and legal inequalities. Laub documents her findings in the HBO movie, “Southern Rites.” Singer John Legend served as executive producer for the film.
“Ever since I learned about this community in 2002, I knew I needed to return and dig deeper to understand how people were segregating their kids,” Laub said.
Filming was not easy for Laub, who was threatened and physically assaulted during the process.
“There were many people who wanted me to disappear and were not happy about my presence in the community,” Laub said. “These were the same people who were trying to maintain the traditions of segregated social rituals. I was threatened and bullied many times. I realized how serious the situation was for people living there, when this happened. On the other hand, there were many individuals and families who were so open and generous and inviting to me, who were eager to share their stories and perspectives.”
One of the recurring themes from many of the White residents featured in the film, is resistance to change. Many of them still proudly wear and fly the Confederate flag. Laub said people are driven by fear.
“Fear of change, fear of interracial sex and relationships,” she said. “Somehow they thought this would prevent this.”
“Southern Rites” also details the stark disparities that still occur in the South. Many of the Black people featured in the film lived in modest homes, while some of the Whites lived in big houses.
“There is a huge economic discrepancy in this community,” Laub said. “Most of the Black residents live on one side of the tracks, and most of the White families live on the other side. Many Black families expressed frustration about the lack of opportunity for any upward mobility.”
However, the disparities are not just economic. There are also problems with the legal system. The movie documents the case of Norman Neesmith, an elderly White man, who shot and killed Justin Patterson, a young Black man, who had sneaked into his home to see his adoptive daughter, who is biracial. Neesmith eventually received a year in a detention center for the crime. This was seen as progress, because there were several cases of White men who had shot Black men, but were never even charged.
“I think our country definitely still has a problem with equal justice,” Laub said. “We certainly see this in our institutions and justice system.”
Filming in rural Georgia was a world away from cosmopolitan New York City, where Laub lives. But even the big city is not perfect.
“I think forms of segregation happen everywhere in different ways, New York included,” she said. “I think it is less overt than this, but can still be equally damaging. I had never experienced such shameless segregation that was condoned by a school system though.”
One of the subplots in “Southern Rites” focuses on Calvin Burns, a law enforcement veteran, campaigning to be Montgomery County’s first Black sheriff. Although he had 30 years experience, he lost the race to a White man who had no law enforcement background. At the end of the movie, Calvin Burns’ daughter, Keyke, leaves the county in frustration, believing her father was robbed of a job he deserved.
“She (Keyke) actually ended up coming back to Montgomery County, because after all, this is her home. She describes it as a dysfunctional family,” Laub said. “There are people who do leave for opportunities in larger cities, but it’s amazing to see how many people stay because, with all its issues, Montgomery County is their home that they know and love.”
“Southern Rites,” ends on a positive note with high school students going to an integrated prom. The next generation seems to be moving beyond the racial divide.
“I have such faith and hope in this next generation,” Laub said. “They want change. They have been part of the change. I have witnessed it, and it’s been exciting and inspiring to see them look at the world differently than some of their parents and grandparents.”