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Gillian Laub’s documentary “Southern Rites,” debuting on HBO on Monday, focuses on the shooting of a 22-year-old unarmed black man in a southeast Georgia town in 2011 — before names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray sparked protests and elevated to national media attention the lingering racial divide in modern America.
In fact, Laub didn’t initially set out to do the project, which tells the story of the shooting from multiple perspectives, including interviews with the victim’s family members and the assailant. Instead, she had been working on a follow up to her 2009 New York Times series, “A Prom Divided,” about segregated high school proms in Montgomery County, when she heard about the killing.
“We all have preconceived notions. My goal was to kind of deconstruct that in this film,” she tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. “Nothing is what it seems, and it is all very complicated. Hopefully this film can inspire those kinds of conversations that are difficult to have.”
The film recounts how Justin Patterson, 22, and his 18-year old brother Sha’von were invited late one night to the home of Norman Neesmith, 66, by his teenaged niece, Danielle, and her friend. Neesmith had adopted Danielle, whose father is black, as his daughter, and raised her since she was a baby; he was asleep when she and her friends had an impromptu party in the other rooms.
But Neesmith says he was startled when he woke that evening to find the two young black men in his home and, with a .22 caliber gun, shot at them as they fled. One shot hit Justin Patterson, and he died just outside the home. Neesmith claimed that he felt threatened and acted in self-defense; Sha’von contended he and his brother were held against their will.
What is especially compelling about “Southern Rites” is that Laub got extended interviews with all of the principals, including Neesmith and Patterson’s brother and mother.
In the movie, Neesmith expresses worry that he will come across as a redneck Southern white man, when in fact he says that he was shunned by friends and relatives for raising a biracial daughter. Laub says that she found him to be a “complicated person like we all are.”
“I don’t think Norman wanted to kill anyone. I think he regretted what happened. He was angry in that he thought he was protecting his home,” she says.
Nevertheless, she thinks that, “subconsciously,” race was a factor.
“I think that the night was pre-scripted,” she says. “I think that he saw the boys, and in Norman’s head he’s — I don’t think this is even a conscious thing. He sees these two young black boys and he thinks that they are criminals. And I think he sees danger. And they see an older white man with a gun and they run for their dear lives. And so this narrative was pre-scripted, and it is from the legacy that this community holds. Had the boys been from another race, I am not so sure this would have happened.”