A lot or a little?
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.
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?
- In theaters: February 5, 2021
- On DVD or streaming: April 6, 2021
- Cast: Lucas Till, Lucy Hale, Brian Dennehy
- Director: Barry Alexander Brown
- Studio: Vertical Entertainment
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Activism, History
- Character strengths: Courage, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, Teamwork
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: strong racial slurs and violence throughout, and thematic elements
- Last updated: April 7, 2021
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