Hot Docs 2015 Review: Southern Rites
Three stories set in the same place with similar qualities are unable to be brought together in a coherent message in Southern Rites. Photographer Gillan Laub ventures to Alabama in search of one tale, and instead finds two others, but can’t seem to make something of any of them that is of note.
Venturing to Vernon (she is also in Montgomery country, nearly 200 miles away, though gives the impression the settings are interchangeable) Laub looks to uncover what is going on between whites and blacks; sort of. She finds two stories: one about an elderly white man shooting and killing a young black man, and another about a police chief running to be the first black county sheriff. These arise when her initial idea, cataloging the first racially integrated prom a year after her photos of segregation got national attention and forced the school’s hand, is prohibited. These folks don’t like Laub.
She isn’t wanted, and seems at a loss as to where to go and what to look for. Both stories are particularly fascinating, but she can’t find a common thread, a theme to connect everything. It seems, because we know so many don’t trust her that she is trying to be more diplomatic in portraying everyone. It’s so objective that in fact there is little meaning.
These complex, emotional, personal stories are all affecting, but seem to wander aimlessly. The police chief’s daughter represents the mindset of a new generation, and her tale should be fleshed out more. The same applies for another: the adopted black daughter whose white father shot her black friend. These are all compelling tales, but a better framework, or even a different medium, is much needed.