Like most filmmakers, Gillian Laub grappled with the name of her HBO documentary. Before viewers could see the trailer, or the high-profile executive producers associated with the 90-minute film, they would see the title, which would either ignite curiosity or prompt one to simply change the channel.
Laub chose Southern Rites, and while this film takes an honest look at racism in present day America, the name she chose may have been the one and only mistake she made. Laub was initially commissioned to document segregated proms in Montgomery and Toombs County in Southeast Georgia, and like the old saying goes, when you tell the truth, you shame the devil, and Lucifer didn’t like the bad press. As she encountered more resistance, she learned prom gowns, tuxedos and corsages were just the beginning.
Southern Rites, which is executive produced by Academy Award winner, John Legend, chronicles a local election along with the aftermath and trial of Norman Neesmith, a 62-year-old white man who shot and killed Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old, unarmed black man because Patterson and his younger brother Sha’von were—unbeknownst to him—invited in his house by his biracial niece, Danielle.
I won’t arouse you with hope, or even the allure of justice. Neesmith, although slapped with a host of charges endures a laughable consequence, proving once again black men (and women) are truly 3/4th a person in America. But despite Laub documenting what some may think is the same old story about race and injustice in America, the film also shows sparks of hope and change.
At the New York screening of Southern Rites, Laub told a packed audience it was Neesmith’s recorded 911 call that prompted what she almost named the film. As Neesmith described the ordeal that took place in his home, he tells the 911 dispatcher “he shot him.”
“Just a black boy.”
Out of fear for her own life, Loub decided upon Southern Rites, and while the words “just a black boy” are jarring, heart-wrenching and showcase a lack of respect for the lives of men clothed in black skin, recent and historical events prove had Laub went with that title, she wouldn’t be telling a lie.
HBO’s Southern Rites airs Monday, May 18 at 9 p.m. EST. Watch the trailer below.
Photo Credit: Gillian Laub/HBO