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John Legend Needs You To Know Why This Young Man Is Dead

The superstar musician on his new HBO documentary, 'Southern Rites'

Steve Mack/FilmMagic

So much of our nation's bigoted past and present is justified with the word tradition: It’s how the privileged rationalize unequal treatment, an easy way to explain away separation and stratification. Sometimes we even say it to shrug off something we know is wrong.

In the South, racially segregated proms are nothing new—something you might call a tradition. It’s a symptom of our national culture (and at times, our government), which has before fought to keep black and white people from falling in love and "mixing." Prom night is the symbolic flashpoint for American sexual adolescence, a charged night that means much to many. But how, in the Age of Obama, are they still a tradition?

Montgomery County High School in southern Georgia didn't get its integrated prom until 2010, one year after photojournalist Gillian Laub startled a lot of readers with her images of two separate-but-equal proms in the New York Times Magazine. A new HBO documentary, "Southern Rites," directed by Laub and premiering on Monday, May 18, tells the story of Laub returning to Georgia and finding more stories to tell. The film explores the shooting death of Justin Patterson in 2011—committed by white homeowner Norman Neesmith, who shot the 22-year-old as he and his younger brother were running away from Neesmith's home—and the subsequent plea bargain. The documentary also covers a local law enforcement official running to become Montgomery County's first black sheriff.

Musician and executive producer John Legend and director Gillian Laub discuss their new HBO documentary film "Southern Rites" at AOL Studios In New York.
Ben Hider/Getty Images
Best Original Songin his acceptance speech

Earlier this week, I spoke to Legend about the project and the renewed prominence of black struggle in the national zeitgeist. 

Jamil Smith: Tell me what brought you to this story. 

John Legend: I have a film and TV production company called Get Lifted Film Company, and we’re always on a mission to find interesting stories, interesting writers and directors that have something provocative, entertaining, and interesting to contribute. In that search, through a friend, we met Gillian Laub and heard about what she was doing. The original hook, for me, was just the intrigue of segregated proms in the twenty-first century. How was this possible, and yes, I want to know more about it. That’s where it started. But obviously, having seen the film, you know there’s a lot more to the story than just, “Hey, the proms were segregated in this town.” It’s a really interesting story about the criminal justice system, about the racial divide when it comes to voting—especially in the South—and all that comes together in a really interesting way.

JS: The first time we here in New York and other major media centers first heard about segregated proms in south Georgia was when we saw Gillian Laub's New York Times Magazine piece. Can you tell me how you first encountered that story, independent of the documentary? And can you recall your reactions to it? 

JL: I think I saw it on Twitter, or some kind of social media, and people were just in disbelief: "How is this still happening?" I felt the same way. I knew racism was real in America and there's real segregation that's happening, still, in housing and schools and all these kinds of things. But very seldom is it as explicit as this truly separate-but-equal prom regime that they had. It was just so brazen and odd, and such a relic of another time that it stood out.

JS: I think one of the most interesting things about the film is that it shows there are so many different layers to how we confront, or don't confront, the issue of race in America. What would you say are the underlying themes or conclusions that you got out of what you heard in that film? What did the subjects in the film say about how they communicate about race and the racial dilemma?  

JL: The segregated proms are an example of a very exaggerated racial divide, but the other stories are more common, I think: the story of the murder of the young man [Patterson], and the way the criminal justice system dealt with that; and then the story of a man trying to become the first black sheriff in the county, and how the electorate in the South deals with that. I think those are actually more common stories, and they're a little more subtle. It's not easy to say, "Oh, this is blatant racism." It's the racism of a more structural type that affects us everyday and affects so many black communities everyday, but it isn't as headline worthy or headline grabbing as the very exaggerated story of segregated prom.

JS: One of the other narrative threads is police chief Calvin Burns running for sheriff. There's enough material in any one of these threads for an entire documentary; why was that thread so essential to the story that was being told?

JL: It was interesting because it was part of the story of how Gillian kind of integrated herself into the community. She originally went down to photograph these segregated proms, and she was persona non grata when she tried to go back into this town. But she did get some love and interaction from the police chief's daughter, Keyke, throughout the film. She got some interaction from the sheriff, but it turned out that he had to keep her at arm's length after a while, because it was hurting his chances with white voters in the town if they saw him hanging out with this woman who was seen as a kind of northern infiltrator, carpet-bagger, who was coming to tell the South how to run their social lives, in real parallels to what was happening back in the Jim Crow era, where northern journalists would come down with these stories and they'd sometimes get sued, or they'd run into other trouble with the legal system in the South. That kind of mirrored that when Gillian tried to go back after she reported about the segregated prom. 

So I think the interesting part about the sheriff story is partly the costs of him being friends with her and how that might have impacted his election—and then too, he had also gotten death threats when he had previously tried to run for sheriff. It was always going to be something that was fraught for him to try and get this position. But he was imminently well-qualified and easily the most qualified in the election. He just couldn't pull it off.

JS: Pivoting off that is the idea of the outsider coming in to tell the story. How important is it for us to look at this as something that we need to feel is as part of us, and not just some backwoods town in Georgia that none of us would ever care about?

JL: Like I said before, I think the prom story is pretty exotic. It's pretty rare that you would have a system of segregation that is so explicit. But if you look at how segregated so many of our schools are, in effect, our proms are segregated all throughout the country. It's just less formal and less explicit. But if you look at a lot of our schools that our young people go to, particularly in our cities, their schools are almost completely segregated. And so I'm always cautioning us Yankees and northerners not to get too self-righteous comparing ourselves to the South, because a lot of the things that are more explicit in the South are more subtle in the North, but still happening.

JS: Us both being from Ohio, I hear that. You're heavily involved in these conversations, more so than a lot of people at your level of the entertainment business. Do you feel like the overall communication about race and the racial dilemma is improving, and if so, how?

JL: I think it's more robust, and there's just more volume and contributions from people that traditionally are left out of the conversation. I think particularly when it comes to the police, the simple fact is that we have way more evidence now because of phone cameras and all the surveillance cameras that exist around the country. We just have more documentary proof of police abuses. Now when beforehand we would have just taken the police's word for it, now we have evidence to the contrary. As we all have seen, we never would have gotten the charges in [the Walter Scott shooting in] South Carolina without video proof. We would have just taken the police's word for it, and I think it's important that we question that narrative that the police are always going to tell the truth about these shootings. This video proof is starting to tell us to be careful.

When is it ever right to kill an unarmed person as an officer of the state? It should be almost never, right? 

JS: Right. 

JL: I think these stories that keep coming up are helping us evolve in the direction that we need to evolve in, which is saying, "Hey, first of all these lives matter. Their families deserve assistance." We can't automatically assume that because someone's an employee of the state they're going to tell the truth about the situation.

JS: On that note, the killing of Justin Patterson, I feel like that is a situation where it came about before the #BlackLivesMatter movement really rose up. But it's just as outrageous a killing as Trayvon Martin.

JL: Yeah!

JS: I'm not asking you why it didn't get as much traction—but do you feel like this film is, in a way, helping to bring attention not just to his death but to his life?

JL: Yeah, that's what I love about the film. Through the interviews with his mother and his girlfriend and his brother and family and friends— you really get the sense of who he was as a person. Too often, even when we're doing sympathetic coverage to the victims of these shootings, we often don't get to know who that person was beyond a very quick sketch. That's partly just the nature of the pace of cable news and the format of cable news; we don't get as much of an understanding of who the person was. The thing is, it wasn't like he was an especially great kid or an especially bad kid: He was just a kid! He was a kid who was trying to hook up with a girl, just like kids do and young adults do all the time, and he shouldn't have lost his life for that interaction. 

One other thing that comes up in this film and that comes up in pretty much all the news coverage we see is often, the victim ends up being on trial. We've seen that with Trayvon Martin, even though it's clear that George Zimmerman was the real thug in that situation. People were trying to find a reason it was okay to kill that young black boy. What we should spend more time on is, first of all, looking directly at the character of the people who are killing these people. The killer's character should be examined more. And then, two: We should spend more time getting to know the families and the stories of these victims. If we really believe their lives matter, then we should be clear about that in the way we cover their stories.

JS: The central theme that runs through the film is tradition. Some people are clinging on to it—Confederate flags, segregated proms. There's also African American traditions that run through the documentary. Do you feel like in some ways to solve our racial dilemma, or to at least ameliorate it, we have to let go of some traditions on both ends? Or is it purely a situation where white folks have to come around? 

JL: I talked about it with Jon Stewart [Monday] on "The Daily Show." There's a certain inertia to privilege and structural racism that requires us not only to passively let go of traditions, but actively counter them. I think we have to actively pursue policies and actions that counter the centuries of structural racism that we've had in the country. I'm never going to spend much time blaming the victims of racism for their dilemma and blaming their traditions and culture for the dilemma. I'm going to spend most of my time saying that racism is terrible and the country would be better off without it.