by Tim Gordon
Son of the South is a biographical historical drama film, written and directed by Barry Alexander Brown. Based on Bob Zellner’s autobiography, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement. The film tells the story of the grandson of a Klansman who comes of age in the Deep South and eventually joins the Civil Rights Movement. Son of the South stars Lucas Till, Lex Scott Davis, Lucy Hale, Jake Abel, Shamier Anderson, Julia Ormond, Brian Dennehy, and Cedric the Entertainer. Spike Lee serves as an executive producer.
Over the course of the past several months, we have been flooded with stories of injustices, largely featuring the pain and anguish of African-Americans, as well as Black Brits in the United Kingdom. Into this mass of inequities is this story of a young White liberal, with hate in his bloodline, who decides to break the chain and later becomes a vital cog in the civil rights movement.
Set in 1961, Bob’s life appears to be going according to plan. We witness him toasting with his friends exclaiming that he is “free, white, and 21.” While things on the surface seem normal, he still has an inquisitive itch that he needs to scratch. His first moral test comes when he and several college classmates are tasked to write a paper on race relations, with the caveat that they are not allowed to talk with any black people to reach their conclusion. The group audits a church gathering and thus begins his initial battle with his friends and later, with himself. He receives a warning from Rosa Parks, that “there is going to come a time when something really bad happens, that Bob is going to decide which side he is on, not choose it but it’s a choice.”
Soon, everyone in town gets wind of his intentions and slowly they turn on him, trying to beat it out of him, separate him from his family and friends, he even gets a stern rebuke from his Klan member grandfather (Brian Dennehy). The only family support comes from his father, who found himself in a similar situation years earlier becoming the first to break with his family’s racist past. He implores his son to follow his path, no matter what incriminations his beliefs will bring.
Soon, Bob has left his hometown in his rearview and begins volunteering for SNCC, where he immerses himself in the Negro Experience, even learning how to correctly pronounce NEGRO. He crosses paths with a young, educated, ambitious Black woman, Joanne (Lex Scott Davis), where the two take a cultural interest in each other that ultimately leads to romance. Harkening back to the advice from Parks, Bob makes a choice to be on the right side of history.
Brown’s directorial debut is a throwback to the era when stories about the movement were largely told from a White perspective, for example, think Mississippi Burning, or Cry Freedom. The difference with this made-for-TV story is that the point-of-view is Zellner, one of the many unsung White men in the middle of the struggle. While boasting a small screen or Television movie of the week quality, the film is very serviceable at home but definitely feels more at home on the small screen.
The best way to describe Son of the South is to call it “a necessary relic,” which stands out like a sore thumb among the sea of current stories about the struggle from Black creatives and storytellers. Despite lacking a certain gravitas, Zellner’s story deserves to be amplified, even if it fails to elevate from being a cute story to a major cinematic event. While all films are not created equal, one could do far worse than experiencing Zellner’s struggle to expand the rights of all.