It’s nigh on impossible to make a film that tells the story of the Civil Rights Movement through a white character’s eyes any more. We’re a very long way from the days of a “Mississippi Burning” treatment of this subject.
The very best you could hope for in telling this story through white “eyes on the prize” is dismissal, or well-earned accusations of “cultural appropriation” from the culture at large. Even if Spike Lee’s listed as a such a film’s producer.
That’s a barrier the folks who made “Son of the South” never cleared. This well-intentioned but often patronizing biography is about an Alabama white man who was one of the early organizers of the Students Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the young people who started the Freedom Riders project and were in the front ranks of the later Freedom Summer.
Bob Zellner was a real hero of the movement, the grandson of a top man in the Alabama Ku Klux Klan and son of a former Klansman turned liberal Methodist preacher who found his life’s work and passion in the idealism of people struggling for racial equality.
But in telling his story and the larger saga he was a part of, “Son of the South” goes for “cute” and keeps the most important figures in this grassroots effort to break the stranglehold white supremacy had on America on the periphery.
There’s good stuff here, and Zellner is worth remembering. But the movie’s virtues are lost in too many cringe-worthy moments.
In 1960 Montgomery, Zellner (Lucas Till, the new “MacGuyver”) first gains notice for upsetting the powers that be at local Huntingdon College by leading his class assigned to write about “the race problem” into sermons and rallies led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer, quite good) and Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier).
Early scenes featuring those two are the best things about “Sons of the South.” Writer-director Barry Alexander Brown, Spike Lee’s longtime editor, ensures that Abernathy has both a stoicism for the long road ahead and an open-minded compassion about what it will take to walk it. And Lanier’s Parks is a woman of agency, not the passive “She was just tired and didn’t want to give up her seat” reluctant heroine of myth. Parks, like John Lewis (Dexter Darden), was looking for some “good trouble” when she made a protest that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and changed America.
Seeing Lanier’s turn in this role reminds us that Rosa Parks should get her own biopic.
Zellner is depicted as a blend of curious and contrary. He takes an interest in the cause, even if he’s willing to leave it at just “an interest,” largely at the insistence of his “our-lives-are-all-planned-out” fiance (Lucy Hale). But the contrarian in him bristles at the threats from the college and the KKK.
And when his Birmingham bigot Grand Dragon Grandpa (Brian Dennehy) shows up, all the cross-burnings in the world aren’t changing the kid’s mind.
Parks warning him that “taking no side is taking a side” in this struggle is something Zellner takes to heart. Eventually. First he’s got to maintain his “get along to get along” stance with his racist peers, hear out Grandpa’s “call a spade a spade” lectures and see for himself the mob violence when the Freedom Riders, integrating interstate bus travel, arrive in Montgomery.
Brown makes this scene as savage and bloody as the real thing. And it’s a crying shame that this is where “Son of the South” starts to go seriously wrong. Till’s Zellner arrying a beautiful, injured Black college professor (Lex Scott Davis) to safety, even if it really happened, makes for cringe-worthy optics.
Building a romance out of that (even if true), this accomplished, five-language speaking Paris-educated Fisk University professor taken by the pretty, blondish Alabama undergrad? Come on.
Everything that follows, including Bob’s near murder by “traitor to your race” types, staggers under that (afterthought) romance and other cutesy touches. Bob, answering the phones for SNCC in Atlanta, learns about this culture he’s intent on helping through “Jet” and “Ebony,” and has to unlearn “Nigra” and learn to pronounce “Negro.” And he gets more direct threats from his own grandfather, all moments that make you wince as they unfold.
It’s not that the performances are incompetent. The script is alarmingly tone-deaf.
Producer Spike Lee couldn’t warn Brown away from the mines in this minefield of a movie about a “white savior” saving the huddled Black masses in the Deep South?
Even the real Zellner, depicted as recognizing his “white privilege” long before that term entered public use, must have seen how clumsily this plays.
And yet for all that, the entire enterprise might have come off had they played up the African American mentors who took the man on and not rendered them — to a one — bit players in an American saga they authored.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for strong racial slurs and violence throughout, and thematic elements
Cast: Lucas Till, Lex Scott Davis, Lucy Hale, Sharonne Lanier, Dexter Darden, Chaka Foreman, Brian Dennehy, Julia Ormond and Cedric the Entertainer.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Barry Alexander Brown, based on the memoir by Bob Zellner. A Vertical release.
Running time: 1:45