Justin Patterson Is Another Dead, Unarmed, Young Black Man: Why Don't You Know His Name?
Justin Patterson’s name should be known far beyond the courtroom where his killer—who fired shots at Patterson even as he was running away—was sentenced to just one year for his murder. His name should be recognized by people outside of his grieving immediate family, which includes his younger brother Sha’von, who held Justin in his arms just before he bled to death. It should, for many, bring to mind the image of a 22-year-old who will never live to see his daughter grow up or experience old age, while his murderer lives out his twilight years in South Georgia’s pastoral countryside. In short, Patterson’s name ought to be as familiar as many others on the grim roll call of unarmed black people killed by armed white people claiming self-defense, often in the face of dubious and contradictory evidence.
Perhaps Gillian Laub’s beautiful, elegiac documentary Southern Rites, which has its broadcast debut on HBO on May 18, will help give Patterson’s name the recognition it deserves. Laub is a photographer whose camera often zooms in on the invisible but impenetrable things that divide us; her 2005 awardwinning photo and interview series “Testimony” focused on Israeli Jews, Arabs and Palestinians. She began documenting the racially segregated high school proms in Justin Patterson’s hometown of Montgomery County, Georgia, in the early aughts. In 2009, the New York Times magazine published her photos and interviews in a multimedia piece titled “A Prom Divided.” It caused enough national outrage to inspire—the word “shame” might be appropriate—the town into finally integrating its school dances. When Laub later returned to Montgomery County with the intention of capturing the hope and promise symbolized by the town’s first integrated proms, she unexpectedly found herself documenting a tragedy.
In the wee hours of Jan. 29, 2011, a 66-year-old white man named Norman Neesmith shot and killed a 22-year-old African-American named Justin Patterson. By all accounts, Justin and his brother Sha’von had been invited to Neesmith’s rural home, which sits amid the rolling onion fields of Vidalia, Georgia, by Neesmith’s 18-year-old niece, Danielle, and a friend. Danielle, whose father is black, had been raised by Neesmith since she was a baby; he considered her his daughter. By the time Neesmith heard the noise that woke him and sent him searching the house, the four young people were paired off in two bedrooms doing what kids often surreptitiously do, making out and smoking pot. According to Sha’von, Neesmith corralled the boys into his living room, holding them against their will and threatening them with a .22-caliber pistol. When one of the brothers physically pushed Neesmith aside so the other could unbolt the front door, allowing the two to make a run for it, Neesmith fired at their backs as they disappeared into the night. Justin, fatally hit, told his brother Sha’von to keep running. Ultimately, he would bleed out in the exact spot where Neesmith’s bullet cut him down.
The story of the year that followed the shooting, as the trial unfolds, the town takes sides and Justin’s parents fight for justice, is the centerpiece of Laub’s film. It is, ironically, flanked by two concurrent stories of racial hope in Montgomery County: the integration of the local high school’s proms, and an historic campaign to elect the area’s first African-American sheriff. It won’t be lost on audiences that the story at the heart of Laub’s film unfolds in 2012, the same year Trayvon Martin was killed. Though Laub, rightly, keeps her sights trained on the Patterson case, offscreen, a national conversation about black lives was beginning to take place that continues to grow louder and more urgent each day. Sadly, that conversation rarely includes mention of Patterson’s name.
Laub, whose debut film was produced by singer-songwriter John Legend, has made a documentary which has turned out to be perennially relevant and resonant, particularly in this moment. I recently chatted with the director about the making of Southern Rites, the intense resistance she encountered from those who resented her meddling with their town’s “tradition,” the goals of the film and the role it has to play in ensuring #BlackLivesMatter.
Kali Holloway: Congrats on Southern Rites. I think you’ve made a very important, very necessary movie.
Gillian Laub: Thank you so much, Kali.
KH: The story has a really interesting genesis that began with a letter sent in 2002. Can you talk about how the whole thing came to you?
GL: Yes. Basically, a very brave student at Montgomery County High School wrote a letter that was really a cry for help to SPIN magazine, and as she later described it, she was shaking when she wrote it, she was so scared. She basically said, please come to my town and show the world what's going on here. Magazines were kind of her outlet to the world; this predated the Internet.
We went down in fall 2002 to photograph the segregated homecoming. Anna, who sent the original letter, had since graduated, but she came back to town and introduced us to her sister Julie, who was a freshman at the same high school. They were sort of our escorts through Mt. Vernon for that weekend. It's super inspiring to think back to the origins of all of this because really, so much change has taken place and I think it's due to one student writing a letter. One student's activism. And I think the film looks, on a macro level, at race in America, but through the microcosm of race in this small town.
KH: So your initial interest was in shooting these segregated proms.
GL: Well, technically, it was a homecoming. But I knew I wanted to return because I was haunted by what I saw. Because what seemed so normal and commonplace to everyone who lived there was anything but for me. Really, the disconnect was in the fact that, on one level, the town seemed so friendly, like this idyllic southern town. To be honest, it actually seemed more integrated than any community I've ever been in. There was such a disconnect when you see such integration and then such overt racism at the same time.
KH: As someone originally from the South, I think that makes sense. There’s a unique and sort of inexplicable way that integration happens in the South. And in lots of ways, a lot of the South, socially, is far more integrated than the North, despite these entrenched and pervasive attitudes about race. So it's a weird, complex, multilayered thing.
Tell me about shooting the proms, the Times piece, and then coming across what became the heart of the story.
GL: Right. So, I learned that the homecoming had became integrated a couple years later. I had moved to the Middle East and I was doing work there. And suddenly I realized, I don't need to travel halfway across the world for a compelling and important story—this is happening in my own backyard.
I knew that I wanted to return [to Montgomery County]. So I called the school in 2008 and said, I was just wondering when your prom is And literally, the school administrator said, Which one? I said, Both, either, all? And she said, Well, the white folks' prom is tomorrow and the black folks' prom is in a few weeks.
So, I called the New York Times magazine and my editor said, Go right down, we have to do this story. I went down in 2008 and that's when I met Keyke [one of the primary characters in the documentary], and she told me she was going to be the first black girl to go to the white folks' prom and she was so excited. So I was going to follow her and I thought, Oh my goodness, this is my story. Then she called me later that night, hysterically crying, saying she’d been disinvited to the prom because her best friend Dylan's mom didn't feel comfortable with him taking her to the [white folks’] prom. She said, Will you come back and photograph me at my prom? and I said, Absolutely.
I was also photographing this girl Harley, who was on the prom committee for the white prom and she said I could follow her. And then we went to a local beauty salon and somebody recognized me from the 2002 piece and got upset and was saying things like, Go back to where you came from; I know what you're doing here, just leave us alone.
She caused a scene. I tried to ignore her but the next thing I know, there are cops there threatening us, telling us to go back to where we came from, saying people will take the law into their own hands and they couldn't protect us if they did. That's what they said to me, word for word.
KH: That’s incredible, though not surprising.
GL: It was scary and a pretty serious threat. I asked [the officer], Are you threatening me? And he said, I'm not threatening you, I'm warning you. I actually got frightened and left, because I decided that we needed to get out of town. But Keyke actually said—I didn't know her dad was a cop at that point—she said, My dad will protect you from the cops and when you come to the black folks' prom no one will care because none of the white people come anyway.
That was true, and I had a fantastic time. I decided that the following year, if they were still segregating their proms, it was obviously still an important story, and I felt like it was even more important because clearly there's something that [the white residents] wanted to hide. And that's why I felt even more like, I have to do this story; they're not going to stop me and intimidate me.
I went back in 2009. I didn't have my camera, I just talked to a lot of people and I said, Look, I'm doing this story no matter what. I want to understand how this is happening. I'm not here to speak for you. You can speak your truth and share and help me understand why [you want to keep things this way]. I just want to understand it.
That's when some people opened up to me. Some of the black students were really nervous to talk and they made me promise that it wouldn't be published until after graduation because they were worried that it would stop them from graduating. Some people would only talk to me off the record because their livelihoods and their jobs depended on their silence.
KH: Of course.
GL: Then the [New York Times magazine] piece came out and was pretty explosive. I wasn't surprised because when people learned that there were still segregated proms in 2009, of course there was going to be a pretty huge reaction. But I don't think the town was prepared for that, so I was persona non grata from then on with a lot of the white community.
KH: I’m curious about how you persevered through that—enduring the backlash from so many of the residents who clearly wanted you out.
GL: It was really hard. I had to figure a way to work around that, and I figured the only way to work around it was just to be transparent and honest. The town and the school made the decision to get involved and integrate their proms. [Ed. Note: Previously, the school refused to intervene, saying the proms were privately sponsored events.] So I knew I wanted to tell this story and I also knew there was a chance that my still photographs couldn’t give the right amount of nuance. I knew that the only way to fully show this complex, nuanced story was through film. I didn't have the skills or knowledge of how to make a film. So the winter before the integrated prom I took a crash course in filmmaking. I learned how to do sound, and how to use my camera. That was going to be the beginning of the film—about this community going through changes and I wanted to look through the lens of students in a hopeful way.
So I went in front of the school board, the parents, administrators, students. God, it was so scary. I remember exactly what I was even wearing to the meeting. I said, Look, I know that a lot of people don't like me, and they don't like the attention that the piece caused. And I understand that, and I apologize for that. But I didn't do anything but share people’s real words. Now I'm back because I care. I didn't want to just come here to disrupt. I'm in this. I care.
And they said, It's integrated, leave us alone already. And I was like, Yeah but that's the point. I want to share the good story, too. I want to be there for it. And they voted that I could film [the integrated prom] and photograph it. And sure enough, I arrived and the cops escorted me off. Clearly somebody with power and authority that didn't care about the town vote decided that I should be removed.
I felt so defeated. I was so devastated. But then I started filming again and I was looking for the story. I was doing interviews and trying to figure out how I was going to make this film. I knew that I wanted to follow Keyke because she was such a strong character and her father was gearing up for election to run to be the first African-American sheriff, which I thought was historic and a sign of change, because years before when he wanted to run for sheriff, he received death threats. That's the story I thought I was following. And then I get a text from Keyke that Justin Patterson was killed. And everything changed then.
KH: So you'd already had a lot of resistance from the white residents. I'm guessing that once there’s a murder involved, some of the black residents became even more hesitant to talk. Or to trust you, because we're not just talking about proms anymore, right?
GL: I was most interested in the family. Everyone may have had their opinion, but most important for me was [Justin’s] mom. How was she feeling? The parents, the brother—how were they dealing with the loss of their son and their brother? I mean, Sha'von was with him when he was killed.
I knew Deede [Justin’s mother], but it wasn't easy [getting her to talk to me]. Because the district attorney, we later learned—and this is when I knew something fishy was going on—the DA told them if they talked to anyone connected to the media it could harm their case. They wouldn't talk to me for a while on record because all they cared about, rightly, was justice for their son. If they were being given the guidance from the man that's supposed to protect them and fight for them that if they speak to anyone connected to the media they will jeopardize getting justice, what do you think they're going to do?
I think he was worried that this was like when Trayvon Martin happened, and he was worried that it was going to blow up. So he scared them into not talking. At the same time, they were like, How come no one knows about our son? No one cares our son was just killed. Why is it not in the news? No one cares. I said, I care. It's not in the news because sadly, I think America doesn't care right now.
Anyway, that's kind of how that happened with the Patterson family. They finally realized actually they did need to speak [out] in order for anyone to know or care about the loss of their son.
KH: How did you convince Norman Neesmith, who shot Justin, to speak?
GL: Well, he knew that I was filming. I was right there in the court filming and he knew that I spent time with the Pattersons because I was following Deede. And I talked to his lawyers and...I wrote him a letter in the detention center explaining that I'm making this film and it's very important for people to hear his truth and his side because otherwise his point of view is just going to be seen and told through other people’s eyes. If he wants the opportunity to share his side and his point of view, then I'm open to being the vehicle to do so. I guess he was willing to sign up then.
KH: You had such astounding, frank conversations with all of the lawyers involved in the case, which is so unusual. You really were able to get everyone on record. I'm curious how that came about.
GL: The same exact way, honestly. I actually was surprised at the access. The DA was very tight-lipped, but I think what he doesn't say is very telling and what he says in court is very telling. But Norman's lawyers, I was shocked at their openness and so grateful for their honesty. I was scared to show them the film because I didn't know if they even realized how they come off and the implications of that. But I showed it to Norman, Danielle and the lawyers together, and they said that they thought it was fair.
KH: Looking back, obviously the case has been tried and Norman served his time. Do you feel like it left an indelible impact on the town at all?
GL: Obviously, the family feels devastated and the people close to Justin feel like justice was not served. There are people that thought Norman shouldn't have served a day. That he did what any person should have done in that situation. It was divisive, but it was also not a surprise. A lot of people could've actually predicted what happened and some people even thought that it was progress that the case even made it to court.
KH: Obviously, the film has turned out to be prescient and timely. Do you have any new perspectives on things now that we’re in the midst of this nationwide movement around equal justice and protection for black lives and confronting a system that has long devalued black lives? Do you have any new thoughts on the movie, given this perspective?
GL: Well, I have to say I'm just happy that it's becoming something that the consciousness of America is finally waking up to. When I was making this film, I really felt like I was discovering so many stories just like Justin's—of non-dangerous, unarmed men being killed that I never read about in the news. I was outraged, and this is back in 2011. I’m really happy that it's coming to light and people are finally paying attention. I don't know if that's because people are getting caught because there are camera phones and video cameras now or that people are really just starting to care and be conscious of it. I'm hoping that it's the latter.
KH: I would wager that it's some combination of the two, since people of color have been saying for years that this kind of thing happened in their communities. And no one believed them. Camera phones just proved something that people of color have been saying for eons.
KH: This film is such a great launching pad for an important conversation and it fits nicely into a bigger conversation being had right now. How would you like Southern Rites to be used to push forward that conversation around race, particularly relating to young black lives? And what are your goals for the film?
GL: I feel like the film really looks at two things: how far we've come, but also how far we have to go. I really do hope it serves as a launching point for a real dialogue because these are difficult conversations. It's obvious right now that we're in a national crisis and hopefully, Southern Rites can facilitate those conversations. The film doesn't have any tidy answers. It opens up the viewer to think and to question. And that's the hope for me—that people really think and question the system and their communities. Because it starts at a local level.
KH: This is a multimedia project, and there’s also going to be a photo exhibit. When and where is that happening?
GL: The exhibit addresses, obviously, the same story but in a different way. It opens on May 14th [at New York City’s Benrubi Gallery]. A Southern Rites photo book is being released at the same time as well. There were so many voices and so many people that I had to take out of the film just for filmmaking purpose. I was able to include a lot of those really important stories in the book. It was like an opportunity to share their stories, people who I became very close with from the prom that got edited out of the film.
KH: Yeah, I know there were some really great interviews I was lucky enough to be able to watch that enriched the story, but there just wasn't a place for them. Any closing thoughts?
GL: I just want to say that it’s a complicated story and we have come a long way, but I really hope that the film shows how much more work there is to do. It's up to us to have these conversations and think about these things.