Over 300 people attended a screening and public reception for the HBO documentary Southern Rites at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Tuesday night.
Southern Rites was directed and produced by acclaimed photographer and UW-Madison alumna Gillian Laub. Award-winning singer-songwriter John Legend served as Executive Producer alongside UW-Madison alumna Lisa Heller as supervising producer for HBO.
In addition to the screening, The Chazen Museum of Art opened the Southern Rite visual arts exhibition since Jan. 25 and have hosted a number of free public programs.
“We’re always interested in showing the work and sharing (the work) of our alumni,” said McKenzie Glynn-Zdrale, program director for Alumni Park and Place at Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association..
The documentary began when Laub brought a town unwanted attention with her cameras. In 2002, Spin magazine sent her on assignment to Mount Vernon, Georgia in order to document the lives of teenagers in the American South. New York Times Magazine published Laub’s photographs of segregated proms in 2009.
The film goes well beyond prom, though — it follows the aftermath when 62-year-old white man Norman Neesmith is charged with the murder of 22-year-old black man Justin Patterson after catching him and his brother in his daughter’s room late one night.
“This man will never know what he has done to my family. No one will ever get me to ever understand why it was necessary to kill my son. This was senseless death to me and it just didn’t have to happen,” the victim’s mother Dedee Clarke stated in front of a courtroom.
In the documentary, you see a tearful mother and a shooter Norman Neesmith putting his head down. Southern Rites features scenes of the victims’ mother, interviews with legal experts, and Neesmith himself. While the trial occurs Laub also follows the election campaign for Calvin Burns who would have been the first African American sheriff.
In partnership with Chazen Art Museum, Glynn-Zdrale said the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association have seen an overwhelming display of interest in the event. The registration for the screening was already at capacity days before the event; however, the Chazen Art Museum livestreamed the Q&A on their Facebook page. The Q&A, moderated by Chazen Museum of Art Director Amy Gilman featured both Heller and the filmmaker Laub.
“She has an incredible eye and that transition from still photographer to making a moving movie tormented her in all the right ways and she’s really genuinely struggling with how to tell three stories that had to be braided together which was apart of the challenge,” Heller said.
She also said Laub brought the care and attention people would want from a filmmaker when addressing a serious topic. Rather than parachuting into the community, Laub returned to the area and developed relationships with the residents for several years.
“I think it was mostly the white community that was angry that I was there,” Laub said.
The filmmaker discussed her experience working on the film and interacting with the residents of the town. She remembers feeling intimidated by law enforcement but eventually asserting her right to be there. Since, Laub has returned for screenings after the documentary aired on HBO, during Stacey Abrams gubernatorial campaign and even for a wedding.
She said for her as a filmmaker it is important to enter a community with an open mind, placing her opinions aside. Laub explained her process of entering a new community when working on a project. She said she could learn something from anyone.
“I knew I was coming from the outside and I often questioned myself like do I have a right to tell this story,” she said.
Laub thought it was important to get the story right. She often spent time in intimate spaces with individuals, interviewing them in their bedrooms and inside their homes. Laub hoped to explore the different lens of individuals throughout the project.
While some might have missed the event, the Southern Rites documentary can be found on HBO’s platforms and Chazen archived the Q&A on their Facebook page. Laub’s visual art exhibition of Southern Rites will be open to the public until May 12.