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HBO's 'Southern Rites' joins the national conversation about race

In 2009, director and producer of Southern Rites, Gillian Laub, made headlines when she published a photo story of a Georgia high school that still had segregated proms. Laub took pictures of the white prom-goers on a Friday night and the black prom-goers on Saturday.

Her piece in the New York Times sparked national debate and caused an uproar everywhere. I remember it well, because Mt. Vernon, Georgia is not so far from my hometown. While it might seem like Laub was lifting a rock while the rest of the country recoiled from what crawled out, for lifelong Southerners, it wasn’t so shocking.

The very next year, the Montgomery County school district allowed the high school to integrate their proms, but when Laub came back to document that, the reception was icy and downright hostile. She wasn’t allowed to photograph the newly integrated prom and was forcibly forbidden from shooting footage.

Montgomery County doesn

The HBO documentary Southern Rites is the story of this town. But it is not the story of the integrated prom, at least not entirely. When Laub returned the next year, she stumbled upon a far more complicated situation: A young black man, Justin Patterson, was shot dead by an older white man, Norman Neesmith, as Justin fled Norman’s house after being invited by his daughter in the middle of the night.

The death of 22-year-old Justin comes almost directly on the heels of the prom integration, and lands smack dab in the middle of the race for county sheriff, in which the county’s first black chief of police seeks the elected office.

Essentially, Laub’s documentary weaves three separate narratives about race—but she doesn’t do a lot of editorializing or proselytizing, which, at times, works against the success of the story.

I watched this documentary with a conflicted heart. On the one hand, the timing of Southern Rites is both topical and significant. John Legend acts as executive producer for the project and likens Justin’s story to those of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray. And he’s not wrong. This is another story of a young black man being shot by an older white man (Martin and Brown shared this fate), and essentially getting away with it (Martin and Brown’s killers have effectively gotten away with it; Gray was not shot but died in police custody, his death was ruled a homicide, and the officers involved have been charged with various crimes but have yet to be tried or sentenced).

Except this crime took place in 2012 in a rural South Georgia town where systemic racism is part of the very core of the shared circumstance—hence the segregated prom in 2009. But it’s a different conversation when you talk about Southern race relations, which are nuanced in ways that can’t be lumped in with other recent atrocities.

Enter my ambivalence and my problems with this documentary. While Laub tries to allow the people in her film to tell their own stories, to show their own sides, she doesn’t draw any conclusions—and I really need her to.

I need Laub to show me what she wants me know, and not be so matter of fact. If it’s that racism exists in the South: check. Is it that young black men are dying senseless deaths at the hands of white authority figures? Understood. Does she want me to do something? What? Feel something? What? She leaves evidence of an unspoken claim without offering much warrant. Connect the dots for me.

Here is a Southern community—not far off, in geography or cultural values from the one in which I grew up—that epitomizes the national conversation about race and the highly defective relationship between the younger black generation and the older white generation. I want to defend the town, to say things like “that’s just how it is down here,” but I know better.

Laub doesn’t offer much opportunity to hand Norman Neesmith the benefit of the doubt. His account of the night Justin Patterson died paints Norman as the victim. His adopted (and biracial) daughter invited the boys over in the middle of the night, without his knowledge, and he was merely defending himself and his property against intruders, according to his memories.

Obviously, perspectives vary depending on the accounts, but Justin’s brother, who was with him that evening, says that Norman tried to hold the Pattersons at gunpoint when he discovered them in his daughters’ bedrooms, and when they tried to flee, Norman shot Justin. Justin died in the arms of his 18-year-old brother within sight of Norman’s house.

It’s not hard to pick sides when you see it laid out like this, but is that what Laub wants from us? To decide who’s in the wrong? I’m not trying to be critical of its message; I’m merely trying to understand it. It seems like she is just declaring facts about a racial situation instead of making arguments about it.

The documentary lacks a point of view, which sometimes can be beautiful, but in this case, it muddies the waters. Maybe I’m too close to it, and what I see slither out from under the rock doesn’t surprise me enough for this film to hit its target with me.

But I find that problematic as well. As soon as the opening scenes started to play out, I got a knot in my stomach, wondering HOW I was going to write about this movie. What could I say to an HBO viewer that lives in Vidalia, Georgia, that will also seem relevant to an HBO viewer that lives in Baltimore? How is the context for this film the same for these viewers? I want Laub to try to fill in that blank for me.

The story of Calvin Burns, the first-ever black police chief, doesn’t end like we want it to, either. He loses the election not long after Norman is sentenced to one year in jail for the involuntary manslaughter of Justin Patterson. Calvin is heartbroken over losing the election, and his daughter Keyke, who acts as informal narrator, decides the community is too broken for her to stay.

Laub does a lot of things right in this film, and one is her portrayal of the characters. Even as we’re feeling hate toward Norman Neesmith, we’re listening to him—trying to figure him out. She doesn’t back away or mitigate, and she doesn’t insert herself in the storytelling.

The Patterson family are humble and soft-spoken, but not because she portrays them that way. Their presence feels authentic and doesn’t feel like manipulative pathos. Justin’s mother’s statement at Norman’s sentencing hearing is one of the most gut-wrenching things I’ve ever seen on TV, while Norman’s reply to her is one of the most infuriating and sickening.

It seems contrary to criticize this film for the very thing I’m praising it for, but I said all along that I am conflicted. For whatever I make of it, it’s a valuable contribution to the conversation about race in our country, especially in the South.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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