I had no idea Gillian Laub’s new HBO documentary, Southern Rites, would be as challenging for me to watch as it was. On Monday, I attended a screening at the Sunshine Cinema where Laub appeared in a panel moderated by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The film’s executive producer, John Legend, made a brief appearance at the beginning of the film. In a very well fitting suit. Whew. Okay, focus, Michael. Chrissy Teigen could be reading this. As he mentions here, it’s very painful to see a woman have to deal with the loss of her son, particularly in this fashion.
And as someone from the South, there were some parts of the film immediately familiar to me.
Say, a white southerner dawning the confederate flag on her back explaining, “It’s not racist. It’s just the southern way.” That’s kind like saying, “You say cross burning, I say light show” but if you say so (actually: stop saying so). And there are other parts in the film which you hear Mount Vernon, Georgia white residents complain of mixed race children by making quips like “it had a read head and a blue ass.” Country folk are amazing.
Racism rarely makes sense, but when it comes to Julian Patterson’s death, which largely dominates the narrative of the film, Laub illustrated just how complicated it can be. Patterson’s killer, Norman Neesmith, is unique in that he raised his half-Black niece as his own daughter. Norman was alienated by many of his family members and neighbors as a result of this selfless choice, so to count him among the unabashed racists of the world feels unfair. Even so, as you watch the film and hear Norman’s story in his own words, you understand that even someone of good intentions can harbor ignorance.
As the story goes, Jason Patterson along with his brother, were invited by Norman’s daughter and another friend to come over – unbeknownst to Norman. There is a confrontation and the end result is Jason Patterson died far too early. Norman expresses both grief over his role in that and anger in response to the condemnation he’s received as a result of his actions. As much as we hear stories of older white men shooting and killing young Black men and women, very rarely do we hear from someone who conveys even a nominal level of remorse.
Also, I did wince when I heard the excuse “kids will be kids” over the idea of an 18-year-old (not Patterson) sneaking over to a 14-year-old’s house to smoke, drink, and have sex. It in no way excuses Neesmith’s behavior. The same goes for it not altering certain realities. Norman Neesmith wouldn’t have gotten as light a sentence as he did had he shot and killed a young white man. Meanwhile, for all his talk of not thinking of color, we hear Norma say on the 911 call about shooting Jason Patterson, “It’s just a Black boy.”
During the conversation, Laub said she initially thought to name the movie It’s Just A Black Boy, only she feared that as a white woman, such a title may come across as offensive to some. I appreciate her sensitivity there and throughout Southern Rites. She makes no one a devil on either side and whoever manages to look bad, it is of their own doing.
The racial politics are pronounced throughout the movie in the bluntest of terms. Case in point, the separate story of one Black man’s quest to be the first Black Sherriff of Montgomery town. And yes, the first desegregated prom, which I noted in a previous post.
What I enjoyed most during the conversation was Laub’s own thoughts about Norman Neesmith. Was Patterson’s shooting Patterson a racist act? Like many in the audience, Laub suspected his perception of two Black men did play some role in his behavior that tragic night. That is a racist act, but even in his anger, Norman Neesmith is a complicated figure.
That said, I’m so tired of seeing Black mothers in tears feel defeated over a system that devalues the life they brought into this world. But I did enjoy this documentary greatly. It truly is a stunning piece of work, and if nothing else, made me think.