The feature length documentary film, Southern Rites, follows photographer Gillian Laub as she returns to the community in Georgia where she documented segregated proms that garnered national attention when her photographs were published in 2009. The proms are now integrated; but in the aftermath of a fatal shooting of a young black man and in the midst of a heated local election, the community still grapples with issues of race that extend well beyond the senior prom. Directed/produced by Laub and executive produced by acclaimed musician John Legend, the timely documentary debuted in May 2015 on HBO.
As the divisive case unfolds, Laub also chronicles the campaign of police chief Calvin Burns to become Montgomery County’s first black sheriff eight miles away. Burns’ daughter, Keyke, who says Justin Patterson was her first love, works to elect her father, and is outspoken about the community’s racial divide.
Southern Rites features revealing interviews with people involved in both stories, who offer complex reflections on how well-worn racial lines may have informed the outcome of both events. The film closes as students prepare for a newly merged prom, capturing them happily dancing and celebrating together.
Laub explains, “I am hoping the film can start conversations that are really hard to have, but are necessary in order for us to move forward.” Executive producer John Legend, who lends a new song, “We Still Believe,” to the documentary, remarks, “By the end of the film, you see some sense that people might start coming together, so that gives me some hope.”
Southern Rites is an original and provocative twelve-year visual study of one community’s struggle to confront longstanding issues of race and equality. In May 2009, The New York Times Magazine published a photo-essay by Gillian Laub entitled, “A Prom Divided,” which documented Georgia’s Montgomery County High School’s racially segregated homecoming and prom rituals. Laub’s photographs ignited a firestorm of national outrage and led the community to finally integrate. One year later, there was newfound hope—a historic campaign to elect the county’s first African American sheriff, yet the murder of a young black man— portrayed in Laub’s earlier prom series—by a white town patriarch, reopened old wounds. Through her intimate portraits and first-hand testimony, Laub reveals in vivid color the horror and humanity of these complex, intertwined narratives. The photographer’s inimitable sensibility—it is the essence and emotional truth of the singular person in front of her lens that matters most—ensures that, however elevated the ideas and themes may be, her pictures remain studies of individuals; a chronicle of their courage in the face of injustice, of their suffering and redemption, possessing an unsettling power.
Mount Vernon is the ideal American small town. Set amidst fields of sweet Vidalia onion farms in Montgomery County, Georgia, it’s a place where families can trace their roots back many generations. People are friendly, polite, proud of their history, and protective of their neighbors. But it’s also a town held hostage by its own past, as photographer Gillian Laub discovered in 2002, when she learned that the area’s high school proms and homecoming parties were still racially segregated.
For more than a decade, Laub has explored the history of Montgomery County and documented the lives of its residents, especially its youth, grappling with what appeared to be a toxic anachronism. She continued to return even in the face of growing—and eventually violent—resistance on the part of some in the community. In 2009, Laub’s photographs of the segregated proms were published in The New York Times Magazine. The following year, largely as a result, the proms were finally integrated and, for a moment, progress seemed underway. And it was the power of the photographic image - not politics or anger - that acted as the primary catalyst.
Then, in early 2011, tragedy struck: Justin Patterson, a twenty-two-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a sixty-two-year-old white man. At first, the murder seemed to confirm every assumption about the entrenched prejudice that this community was struggling to shake. Except, as with every human story, the truth was more layered than a quick headline could telegraph. What began as an exploration of segregated proms became something much more tragic, and complex.
There is a thin line between the ties that bind and the ties that free, between the inheritances that haunt and those that provide comfort. This is a story about young people today living in the American South, and it asks whether a new generation can finally liberate themselves from an uncomfortable past and make a different future.