Son of the South

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Son of the South Movie Poster Image
Civil Rights biopic of White ally has racist crimes, slurs.
  • PG-13
  • 2021
  • 105 minutes

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Kids say

age 18+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

Focuses on the idea that civil rights are human rights, and that White allies were involved in the U.S. Civil Rights cause in the 1960s. The story is focused on a White character's relationship to a movement centered on Black experiences, but it definitely shows how organized and committed the members of SNCC and other Civil Rights organizations were to the causes of equal rights, voter enfranchisement, and non-violence. And it reminds viewers of how institutional racism in the Jim Crow South is what led White communities to believe that the Civil Rights struggle was being led by White, Northern communists instead of Black Southerners. Shows how Civil Rights workers, Black and White, put their lives, reputations, and privacy at risk. Major themes include courage, integrity, self-control, perseverance, and teamwork. 

Positive Role Models

Bob Zellner is the White son of a reformed Klansman and the grandson of an active one, but he recognizes the importance of the Civil Rights movement and how persistently the Black community has been harmed and killed because of White supremacy and segreation. White Birmingham couple Virginia and Clifford Durr are also highlighted as allies who provide housing, shelter, and support to the Freedom Riders and activists. Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, James Forman, Herbert Lee, and John Lewis are featured as established Civil Rights leaders who brought the movement to the public's attention.

Violence

Southern Whites terrorize Black marchers and organizers and White Freedom Riders and allies. They attack the activists with sticks, bats, guns, poles -- anything they can use. A group of White men puts a noose around another White man's neck and nearly lynches him. KKK members burn a cross outside a college dorm. A Klansman tells his grandson that he'll put a bullet in his head if he continues to march with the activists. The police arrest activists and turn their backs while people are violently injured and beaten. A White politician shoots a Black man point blank; he isn't arrested.

Sex

Kissing and implied making out. A couple of non-sexual scenes of a shirtless man. Flirting.

Language

Many (more than 20) uses of the "N" word and other racist slurs: "coon," "monkey," "porch monkey," "nigra," etc. Also: "s--t," "dumb-ass country boy," "White trash," "traitor," "chicken s--t," "Jesus," "Jesus Christ," "damn," "hell," "commie Jew bastard," "commie Jew," and more.

Consumerism

Brief shot of a few cars and magazines: Chevy, Ebony and Jet.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A couple scenes of college seniors (of legal age) and adults drinking beer or having drinks in front of them at dinner.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Son of the South is the true story of Bob Zellner (Lucas Till), an Alabama Klansman's grandson who, as a college student, immersed himself in the 1960s U.S. Civil Rights movement and later became the first White field secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Produced by Spike Lee and based on Zellner's biography, The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, the movie centers a White character's relationship to a movement core to Black experiences. Reportedly, that's because director Barry Alexander Brown wanted to inspire allyship and action in the face of injustice: The movie's message is that if a descendant of the KKK could march for justice despite beatings, arrests, and death threats, there's no excuse for other White people to stay silent in the face of injustice. But it's still uncomfortable to watch a Civil Rights movie in which the cause's legendary Black activists are supporting characters. Expect to hear many racist slurs (more than 20 uses of the "N" word and various versions of it) and see accurate reenactments of hate crimes (beatings, a first-degree murder, fiery crosses, death threats), some by law enforcement officers. Zellner is never presented as a savior -- he comes off as initially naive and unaware of how well-organized the freedom movement is -- just as someone who did the right thing when few others in his circumstances would.

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What's the story?

SON OF THE SOUTH tells the little-known story of how Southern White activist Bob Zellner went from being the son and grandson of Alabama Klansmen to supporting and marching alongside the Black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Based on Zellner's 2008 memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, the movie starts in 1961 showing Zellner (Lucas Till) with a noose around his neck, seemingly about to be lynched. It then rewinds to earlier in the year, with Zellner as a senior at all-White Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, where he researches a sociology project on race relations by taking four friends to a church service featuring Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer). Zellner meets Abernathy and the already-famous Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier). After college administrators punish the "Huntingdon Five," Zellner's grandfather (Brian Dennehy) appears in his KKK uniform with other Klansmen to explain to Zellner what's on the line if he keeps acting "crazy." Zellner is soon invited by local White Civil Rights supporters Virginia (Julia Ormond) and Clifford Durr (Greg Thornton) to formally help support the Freedom Riders, but his fiancee, Carol Anne (Lucy Hale), is afraid of the danger and would rather he stick to their plans to get married and move up North so he can attend law school. As tensions and violence flare, Zellner decides to abandon the safety of home for a future as a full-time Civil Rights activist, including becoming the first White field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Is it any good?

This is a well-acted history lesson about one of the Civil Rights movement's first Southern White allies, who forgoes a safe life in Alabama to become an activist. While Hollywood doesn't really need another story about a White ally, this one, directed by Barry Alexander Brown (Spike Lee's longtime editor) is different because it doesn't exaggerate Zellner's importance or involvement. Till plays Zellner as intelligent, confident, and kind, but his performance also reveals how naive Zellner could be about the level of organization behind the Freedom Movement. There are telling conversations about how Parks wasn't a tired, unwitting bus rider, about how Zellner emerges relatively unscathed from a protest while those around him were beaten and injured, and, later, about how he has to unlearn parts of his upbringing to participate in anti-racist activism. Unlike many other White characters in historical dramas, however, Zellner is more open-minded from the start thanks to his father, a Methodist minister who tore up his KKK robes and stopped believing in racist bigotry.

The transformation in Son of the South, then, is how Bob doesn't take the predictable, safe route -- an Ivy League law degree, a beautiful wife, living up North away from Jim Crow laws -- but instead delves straight into one of the least likely jobs for an Alabama-bred White man: Civil Rights activist. The movie can be frustrating, especially when it features talented actors in supporting roles not much larger than cameos. It would have been far more fascinating as an exploration of how and why White people got involved with the Civil Rights movement had the film explored Zellner's real-life relationship with activist Dottie Miller, a Jewish New Yorker who also became one of SNCC's few White secretaries. Frankly, it's a shame there's not a big, feature-length documentary about Zellner. Audiences won't learn more from Son of the South about the Civil Rights era as a whole, but it does offer a reminder to those who would be allies about the importance of standing up to injustice, disenfranchisement, and discrimination.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the racist language and violence in Son of the South. Do you think it's necessary to the story? Why, or why not?

  • How do the lessons from the 1960s Civil Rights movement apply today? How does racial discrimination manifest itself now? What methods could kids today use to protest injustice? What are the differences between a protest and a riot? How does the media typically depict protests?

  • Do you think the movie avoids the "White savior" pitfall, despite focusing on a White character? Does the movie make you curious about allyship and how White activists like Bob Zellner advocated alongside Black Civil Rights leaders?   

  • Who is a role model in the story? How do they demonstrate courage and integrity? What about self-control and perseverance? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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