Southern Rites

Movie review by
Melissa Camacho, Common Sense Media
Southern Rites Movie Poster Image
Docu exploring Southern racism is insightful, honest.
  • NR
  • 2015
  • 97 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Racism, murder, family major themes. 

Positive Role Models

Some folks appear racist; a person is facing murder charges.


An assault shown; a shooting death and racist acts discussed. 


Underage sex, single motherhood discussed. 


“hell,” the N-word. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Marijuana use briefly discussed. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Southern Rites is a documentary that explores the complicated race relationships in two small southeast Georgia towns, including a history of segregated proms, local election problems, and other race-related issues. It contains strong themes, including institutional and cultural racism, a shooting death, and descriptions of racist confrontations: There are lots of opportunities to discuss the issues it brings up with your teens. Words like "hell" and the N-word are audible, and marijuana smoking and underage sex are briefly mentioned. 

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What's the story?

Produced by singer John Legend, SOUTHERN RITES is a documentary about the deep, systemic racial divide that continues to exist in the heart of southeast Georgia. In 2009, filmmaker and photographer Gillian Laub traveled to Montgomery to document the high school's segregated proms. After her work was featured in the New York Times Magazine, the town was pressured to desegregate them. But upon her return a year later to film the integrated prom, the hostility she is met with causes her to shift her attention towards the long-standing racial lines in Montgomery and Toombs counties. She follows the case of Norman Neesmith, an older Caucasian man who shot 22-year old Justin Patterson, a black man who was secretly invited into his home by his adopted biracial daughter. She also documents local Chief of Police Calvin Burns’ election campaign, which, if successful, will make him the county’s first black sheriff. Throughout the process Laub uncovers a political, economic, and social system that reinforces the complicated and deeply rooted racial issues of the area.  

Is it any good?

This insightful, surprisingly candid documentary takes an in-depth look at the complicated race relations that continue to exist in two Georgia small towns. This despite the fact that its prevalence is denied or ignored by many who live there. Interviews with county residents, including Neesmith, Chief Burns, his outspoken daughter Keyke, and Justin Patterson’s family and friends reveal, from their point of view, how these racial tensions impact their everyday lives. 

There is an attempt to be impartial, but due to the nature of the topic, much of what is featured here is offered from the black community’s point of view. But it also succeeds at demonstrating how members of this community have become resigned to, or fearful of, challenging the system. It also shows how those who do can still be thwarted by a power structure that will quietly -- but unapologetically -- treat them differently.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the media and movies like Southern Rites discuss race and race relations in the United States. What impact can these conversations have? Is it possible to have them without relying on stereotypes

  • Have you ever experienced or seen racism in action? How did you respond? Would you respond differently if you had the chance? 

Movie details

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