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Southern Rites

                                              By Gillian Laub

Rite  [rahyt]: any customary observance or practice

 

                      This HBO film, at first, focuses on a rural town in Georgia that has finally integrated their high shcool prom.  In 2010.  

                      As shocking as this may sound, the filmmaker Gillian Laub stumbled upon another shocking thing in this town: The murder of a 22-year old African-American man, Justin Patterson, by an older White man, Norman Neesmith.   And this is the story that's told throughout the film.

                     However. the lines of this murder are blurred.  Neesmith is someone who adopted his niece's bi-racial daughter when she was a baby.  He and his wife were ostrasized because of this.  "There goes that white man with the black girl," murmured several townspeople, but Neesmith said that he didn't care.  She was his daughter.  

                  We see pictures of him and her throughout her life on his walls; in frames; and photo albums.  She was his daughter.  And like all daughters, especially when we become teenagers, our like for boys grows stronger and stronger.  And we do things that we just chalk up to "being a teenager."

                 The 14-year old daughter invited 2 men, both brothers, over the house late at night to indulge in some teenage proclivities, one of which included sex with Patterson.  According to Neesmith, he summoned the boys out of the daughter's room, obviously upset.  Between Neesmith's story and Patterson's brother, the story gets fuzzy.

                Neesmith recalls the two men  rushing at him, and in self defense, he shoots at them.  Both boys run out of the back door, and Patterson dies in front of a tree a few hundred feet from Neesmith's house. 

              Patterson's brother recalls that Neesmith held them hostage, and as they were running out of the back door, Neesmith shoots at them, hitting and killing his brother.

              A year later, Neesmith goes to trial.

             "A person is dead, and it may not mean anything to some of you, but it was my son, and it means everything to me," stated Patterson's mother.  

             After her statement to the court, Neesmith apologized to her and her family.

             Neesmith's charges were reduced to a plea bargain.  He only served one year in a detention center. 

             What I love, love, love  about this film is that it doesn't sway you to believe one story over the other.  It doesn't take sides.  Instead, it allows you to figure out what's really going on here.  

           I believe that Neesmith is a decent man.  I believe that he was sincere in his apology to Ms. Patterson and her family.  However, he is the beneficiary of white privilege.  In this rural town that just started having integrated proms and which elected a white man with no experience as Sheriff over a black man with 20+ years of experience, Neesmith was able to skate through the system as if he got caught with a bag of weed.

             The justice system in that town was to blame.  The elected officials act on behalf of the majority of the town, and the D.A. did just that.  Neesmith, unwittingly, had the support of many Whites, who may have conveniently forgotten that he was "that White man with the Black girl."  Their support for Neesmith is what resulted in his plea bargain.  This was not The State of Georgia v. Neesmith.  This was a trial of the White man v. the Black man.   

             Neesmith is also to blame but not for the reason you may think.  He was a revolutionary white man in this town.  To adopt a bi-racial child was unheard of.  If he could have done something like that, then he could also use his own white privilege to be vocal about how unjust it was for him to be given a one-year sentence for murder.  I'm sure he's unsettled with how the court handled his case.  Just because you're the beneficiary of undeserved and questionable privilege, doesn't mean that you are a bad person.  However, when he realizes his own privilege, I hope  that he decides to fight this Southern rite.

             We know that the greater justice system prosecutes Black people more harshly than it does White people.  This town is a petri dish of what's still wrong with our country.  

           Watch this film, and decide who or what is the "bad guy" here.   It may not be as easy to identify as you think.