Gillian Laub/Courtesy of HBO
New York-based photographer Gillian Laub first traveled to Mount Vernon, Georgia—a small town (population 2,301) 166 miles southeast of Atlanta—in 2002, on assignment for SPIN magazine. She had been commissioned to cover the local homecoming dance after the magazine received a letter from Anna Rich, a subscriber and a student at Montgomery County High School. More than 30 years after the school itself was integrated, Montgomery High still held separate dances for black and white students.
“She asked someone to come to her town and show the world what was going on there,” says Laub. “She was devastated about not being able to take her boyfriend to the prom because he was black and she was white.” Laub went back to Mount Vernon in 2009 to photograph the prom, and after the images were published in the New York Times Magazine the resulting outrage forced the town to finally integrate the event in 2010.
Now, in her new HBO documentary film (and photo book) “Southern Rites,” Laub returns to Mount Vernon again—this time chronicling the aftermath of the killing of 22-year-old Justin Patterson, one of the black students she met during her 2009 visit, by white townsman Norman Neesmith. The film is a frank and often painful look at race, power, family, and the potential for real and meaningful change. A few days ago, Laub called us from New York to talk about “Southern Rites.”
What drew you to Mount Vernon again?
I was both fascinated and haunted by Montgomery County and needed to dig deeper in order to understand how a community was choosing to segregate their kids. It felt like the segregated rituals were a symptom of something much larger. This community seemed a lot more integrated than most places I’d ever been, including my own city, New York—except they were displaying such overt displays of racism that I had never witnessed.
How did the people in town receive you after the publication of your New York Times Magazine story?
I promised the black students who talked to me on record that the Times story wouldn’t run until after they graduated. They were very worried that speaking openly and honestly would prevent them from matriculating.
Many of the white families who wanted this tradition to remain were angry, and surprised that there was national outrage. They maintained that this wasn’t racist—it was a justifiable tradition they wanted to keep and vehemently defended it. Many people from the black community expressed fear about talking, but also relief and hope that this could help make a change. Thankfully it did.
How did you find out about what happened to Justin Patterson?
One of the students I got to know very well, Keyke Burns, told me that Justin had been killed in early 2011. Justin was her first love and her prom date in 2007. I had met Justin’s mom a few times and photographed his younger brother Sha’von at the school’s prom.
Did you see a parallel between Justin’s story and the cases of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and others?
There are many similarities, but no two cases are the same, of course. The Patterson case was happening at the same time as Trayvon Martin’s and Dedee kept saying as she watched Trayvon’s mom, “God I feel her pain. I wish I could talk to her right now.” Yet it was also difficult for them because nobody was covering the death of their son. The Pattersons felt devastated and helpless.
The scenes with Justin’s family were very hard to watch, especially as a parent. Were they difficult for you as a filmmaker?
They were incredibly difficult. I photographed the courtroom scene (at Neesmith’s sentencing) with three cameras, one of which I was holding. That footage was unusable because I was crying so much during Justin’s mother’s statement, it was shaking. I cried a lot during the making of this film.
One of Neesmith’s lawyers told you that the fact that the case was investigated at all was “progress.” What was your reaction to that statement?
I really appreciated her honesty, but felt sad that this was the truth. I learned about five other shootings of unarmed black men in the area that didn’t make it to the courts. This was an accurate and honest answer.
Many HBO viewers, especially those in urban areas outside the South, may find it unfathomable that places like this still exist in America. What can we all learn from a place like Mount Vernon?
I am hoping this brings awareness that this is happening in our own backyards. Unfortunately Mount Vernon is one of many small communities that share this reality in our country. The South certainly has a loaded history, but institutional racism exists everywhere. I’m just looking at it through the microcosm of one town.
What do you hope that people in Montgomery County, in Georgia, in the South take away from your film?
I didn’t make this to fulfill any stereotypes, because [stereotypes] make these issues easy to dismiss. I was worried so much about backlash from the town, but it’s been the opposite. The response from people in the community has been incredibly fulfilling. It has opened up the dialogue, instead of closing it down. Students have reached out to each other and apologized and shared stories. People feel like they’re being heard. Although there’s still a lot of progress that still needs to be made, I have seen change over the past decade of working in this community. Change happens when there is awareness and dialogue, and it’s happening in this next generation.