In small-town southeast Georgia, long-simmering racial tensions between two neighboring communities has created a rift that has come to define the culture. HBO’s “Southern Rites” is a gripping documentary that examines race relations between Montgomery County and neighboring Toombs County residents, and it offers a glimpse into the ongoing struggle against racism in American culture. Director Gillian Laub and executive producer John Legend have crafted a film that brings to light the circumstances that have contributed to such a divide; including segregated proms, political maneuvering and the killing of a young black man in Toombs County.
Laub initially drew attention to Montgomery County, Georgia, in 2009, when she documented the school’s segregated proms in a piece for the New York Times. It was while Laub was in town doing a follow-up piece on then-current elections when a White resident was charged in the murder of a Black youth. The subsequent plea bargain and sentencing only served to exacerbate the already-prevalent racial tensions between the communities.
With the ongoing unrest around the country following high-profile shootings of unarmed Black men by police officers, race and racism are dominating the national conversation. With “Southern Rites,” the sometimes-forgotten story of rural racism is once again brought to the fore and exposed in a way that reminds middle America that conflict is not limited to our urban centers.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” said director Laub. “This film is about giving a voice to the people of Montgomery and Toombs counties. This is their narrative. I’m grateful to HBO for their support and the opportunity.”
“Southern Rites” airs on HBO on May 18 at 9 p.m.