Over the past year, events in Baltimore, New York, and Ferguson, Mo., have provided ample evidence that America's racial problems are far from solved. A new HBO documentary drives the point home as well -- and its director is quick to note parallels between racism and anti-LGBT bigotry.
"It's all about discrimination and civil rights -- it's all connected," says Gillian Laub, whose directorial debut, Southern Rites, premieres tonight on the cable channel. And all prejudice, she notes, is about fear of the unknown.
Laub has spent most of her career as a photographer; one of her earlier projects was a multimedia piece called "Becoming Nikki," about a 10-year-old transgender girl, commissioned by People magazine in 2013. Another project was documenting the racially segregated proms at Montgomery County High School in rural Georgia, and that's what gave rise to Southern Rites.
Laub, who is based in New York City, had been photographing the separate proms for several years, and in 2009, The New York Times Magazine published her photo essay on the subject. National outrage led the school to finally have an integrated prom for all students. Laub continued to travel to Montgomery County; "I thought I was going back to kind of show the prom in transition," she says. But she found far more than that, exposing continued racial tensions.
Norman Neesmith, a white resident of neighboring Toombs County, was arrested in January 2011 for shooting and killing Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old black man Laub had photographed at a prom years earlier. Neesmith's 18-year-old great-niece, Danielle, whom he had raised after her mother abandoned her, and a friend of hers had invited Patterson and his brother Sha'von to the Neesmith home, apparently for sexual encounters. Neesmith was sleeping when the young men arrived, but he woke up, confronted them, and a fight ensued, ending in Justin's death.
While Neesmith was facing trial in 2012, Calvin Burns, the well-respected police chief of Mount Vernon, the Montgomery County seat, was seeking election as county sheriff, hoping to become the first African-American to hold the post. Juxtaposing these two stories, Southern Rites explores the role of race in the region, making it clear that bigotry against black residents has not been erased.
It also makes clear that the situation is complicated; as much as Norman Neesmith may incite viewers to anger, it would be an oversimplification to say he's a hopelessly racist villain. For one thing, Danielle, whom he says he loves deeply, is part African-American. "I think he's a complicated and flawed human being, like most of us," Laub says of Neesmith. "He's very nuanced."
Laub, a straight woman who is a passionate LGBT ally, notes that she's met some Montgomery County residents who are facing homophobia along with racism. The prom king at one year's black prom, she says, came out to her and asked what he should do with his life, as he felt there was no place for him as a black gay man in rural Georgia. But he's still there and actually doing well, she says.
A recurring theme in her work, she says, is "trying to bring out people's truth," whether it's the story of the "incredibly brave" transgender girl Nikki or race relations in the Deep South. Her next project will take her back to transgender issues; it's a film about trans people in the military, who still face discharge if their status becomes known. Laub adds that she can't provide any details just yet.
Meanwhile, as Southern Rites premieres, a companion photo and video exhibit has just opened at New York City's Benrubi Gallery, where it runs through June 27. There is also a companion photo book, and Laub will give a lecture before a special screening of the film at Dartmouth College May 26.
Laub stresses that while the film, which has John Legend as an executive producer and features a song by him, deals with serious and pressing issues, it's not all downbeat. For instance, several scenes show teens of all races having fun together and saying how ridiculous they found the idea of segregated proms. "I do want to note the progress there has been and that there is hope," she says.
Southern Rites premieres tonight at 9 Eastern on HBO; check your local listings. For more information about the film, the exhibit, and related events, go to SouthernRitesProject.com. Watch a trailer for the film below.