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Separate Proms Are Just a Starting Point for HBO Film on Race

By Mark Walsh — May 15, 2015 4 min read
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Six years ago, The New York Times Magazine published a photo essay by photographer Gillian Laub and writer Sara Corbett titled “A Prom Divided.” It documented the separate proms for white and black students of Montgomery County High School in south-central Georgia.

The tradition was surprising to some readers, though not to others who knew that segregated proms had continued in many Southern communities long after the schools themselves had been integrated under federal court order. Still, by that time, the separate proms had been coming under challenge. In 2008, the actor Morgan Freeman had funded the first integrated prom in his hometown of Charleston, Miss.

Back in the Georgia county, the community questioned its separate-prom tradition, and the first integrated dance was set for the next spring. That led Laub back to the community with her photo and film cameras, prepared to document the first mixed-race prom at Montgomery County High.

This is essentially where “Southern Rites” opens. The documentary airs Monday at 9 p.m. Eastern time on HBO.

Unfortunately, Laub is not welcomed to Montgomery County High with open arms. As she approaches what is apparently the school in a car, with her film camera rolling, an adult tells her she is not permitted on school property. Another adult reaches in and tries to rip the camera from her grasp.

Laub has to give up on documenting the prom.

“Then I stumbled on a more complicated story,” she says in the film. And “Southern Rites” becomes a very different documentary—one that is still about the important topic of race in America, but one that has very little to do with high school proms or any other education-related subject.

At first, I was a bit bothered by this, and thought I had been misled by HBO’s promotional materials. But a closer inspection revealed that there is no such deception. Laub and HBO are perfectly forthcoming about the change in direction of the film.

“Southern Rites” mostly becomes an exploration of the shooting death of a young black man by a white homeowner in neighboring Toombs County. The white homeowner, Norman Neesmith, is a self-described “old redneck,” though he does have a biracial relative that he says he raised as a daughter. In January 2011, the daughter and a female friend had invited two young African-American brothers to come over to the house late one night night.

As one of Norman’s lawyers puts it in the film: “It was two boys looking for a booty call and it all went wrong.”

While some of the facts remain murky, this much seems undisputed: Neesmith, then 62, awakened and confronted the two young men in his home (notwithstanding their being invited in). He held them at gunpoint, and when they tried to flee, Norman opened fire. His shots killed 22-year-old Justin Patterson.

Neesmith faced murder and other serious charges stemming from the shooting, and much of the film revolves around the resolution of his case. Meanwhile, Laub also documents the efforts of a local law enforcement officer, Calvin Burns, to become the first African-American to be elected sheriff of Montgomery County.

These stories are gripping and well-told in the documentary. The film, which was executive produced by the musical artist John Legend (who contributes an original song), seeks to tie it all together under the banner of a community “that still grapples with issues of race that extend well beyond the senior prom,” as HBO’s promotional materials put it.

“I am hoping the film can start conversations that are really hard to have, but are necessary in order for us to move forward,” Laub says in those materials. Legend adds, “By the end of the film, you see some sense that people might start coming together, so that gives me some hope.”

Indeed, by the end of the film, a year has passed, and the community is about to hold its second integrated prom. This time, Laub is allowed to film it. It is a fairly short segment, with students of different races mixing embracing at pre-prom gatherings and at the dance itself. Those white students who still have trouble with the idea probably just stayed away, or steered clear of Laub’s lenses.

While I was a bit disappointed that “Southern Rites” wasn’t more about proms and schools, I did recall a mention near the top of the 2009 New York Times Magazine essay that Morgan Freeman’s efforts to encourage a singular, mixed-race prom in his Mississippi town was the subject of a separate documentary.

I looked up that film, “Prom Night in Mississippi,” which had appeared on HBO in 2009 and is now freely available for viewing on the Web (as long as you can take a few Web commercial interruptions). I won’t go into that whole film, since it isn’t new. But I will say that it captures a lot, from Freeman’s meeting with the high school seniors to lay out his offer, to the earnest planning sessions for the integrated prom, to the private, all-white prom organized by a small group of parents and students, to the successful black and white event. Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop.

So perhaps it is fine that Laub was thwarted in her plan to document another community’s first integrated prom. I doubt that she or any other filmmaker could have improved on “Prom Night in Mississippi.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.