HOT DOCS ’15: Gillian Laub attempts to make race relations with ‘Southern Rites’

Shavon Patterson holding up photos of him and his brother Justin Patterson

SOUTHERN RITES premiered at Hot Docs on Wednesday, April 29. For more information on the film, click here.

While many Americans are afraid to confront the civil wars occurring on their soil as we sit back here and type endlessly about them, a handful of female directors seem to be unafraid to take them on, head on. We saw this with Ava DuVernay and Selma last year, and we’re going to see it again with Gillian Laub and Southern Rites this year.

Whereas Selma managed to speak frankly about race relations in modern day America by digging up the past (and thus, demonstrating a lack of progress), Southern Rites takes us right into the heart of current struggles, as photographer and documentarian Laub films multiple racially-charged conflicts occurring in the state of Georgia. What starts off as a tale about segregated proms taking place in Montgomery Country, which Laub photographed for the New York Times in 2009, quickly becomes a cutting discussion of lingering discrimination with the help of a few specific families in the middle of this whole mess.

Since the strength of Laub’s film is in the stories she uncovered while down in Georgia, it’s best if you go into it without much knowledge of the non-prom plots, which range from political turmoil as a result of race, and murder as a result of–you guessed it–race. But to be honest, you won’t be shocked by the content of these narratives, and that fact in itself is quite sad. These families and their stories are all too familiar given what has been happening with regards to young African American men in Ferguson and Baltimore this past year, bringing further insight to the horrific injustice that’s happening just south of our border.

Sadly, the film itself isn’t as strong as its subject matter. The interview segments are quite remarkable as Laub gets many sensitive parties to open up in rather shocking ways, and the cinematography is lovely, which is no surprise given Laub’s previous experience. But the actual timeline of the documentary comes across quite muddled, as there are multiple stories seemingly, but not actually, happening all at once. You feel as though Laub is trying a bit too hard to bring these technically separate stories together in a singular narrative, when they are already united through theme. Perhaps she might have been wiser to turn her material into a series, with each episode focusing on a specific story from start to end . And hey, since the film has already been picked up by HBO, which just did well with docu-series The Jinx, she may very well get that chance.

All and all, Southern Rites is an engaging piece of long-form investigative journalism about a, sadly, ongoing issue, and for that reason alone, it is as much of a must-watch as Selma.



Emily is covering the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival live from Toronto. Check out more Hot Docs reviews here.


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