Son of the South
by George Wolf
Midway through Son of the South, Bob Zellner – a privileged white college student from 1960s Alabama – is quick to stand up to a young Black man who doesn’t think Bob’s interest in the Civil Rights movement is genuine.
Not far away, another young Black man is preparing for upcoming Alabama protests by trying to remain passive while his friends subject him to some of the verbal and physical abuse that is soon to come.
Director/co-writer Barry Alexander Brown’s juxtaposition is earnest, unmistakable, and surface-layer effective – ultimately a perfect snapshot of the entire film.
Zellner’s story, adapted from his own autobiography, is of one white man shaking off the ugly bigotry of his upbringing and family history to march alongside historical icons such as Rosa Parks and John Lewis.
But more than that, the film is an easily digestible message to well-meaning white America that good intentions mean nothing if they’re left on the sidelines.
We meet Zellner (Lucas Till, TV’s new MacGyver and Havoc from X-Men) when he’s “free, white and 21” in the early 60s, a student at Huntington college with a pretty fiancé (Lucy Hale) and plans for Ivy League grad school.
But writing a paper on race relations leads Bob to attend service at a Black church, where he meets Parks (Sharrone Lanier), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and a townfull of racists who don’t take kindly to fraternizing. One of those is Zellner’s own Grandfather (Brian Dennehy), a proud KKK member who does not sugar coat the stakes.
There isn’t much nuance anywhere in the film, and though that makes for a less riveting narrative, it ends up feeling appropriate. Brown, who has often edited films for Spike Lee (an executive producer here), wisely doesn’t try to mimic Lee’s challenging genius.
Brown seems to be aiming for the crowd that’s still inspired by The Blind Side. Lightening the mood with moments of sly humor (Zellner reading Ebony and Jet) and budding romance, Brown avoids lionizing Zellner while finding an entertaining avenue for making his choices a more universal call to end white silence.
You could call that playing it safe, but you can’t call it dumb.