By Sarah Osman
What we need is to see the world through the eyes of Black activists, even though that might be frightening to White audiences reluctant to deal with the unmediated truth.
Son of the South, directed by Barry Alexander Brown.
Over the years, Hollywood has released numerous films about the Black experience, but few of them have been honest or accurate. These movies have often taken the melodramatic route, relishing an opportunity to dramatize the brutalization of Blacks. This appetite for dramatizing punishment has been especially true of films made by White people about Blacks. Of course, these are the ‘liberal’ films that garner mainstream admiration: The Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture and The Help was a favorite among White audiences. The problem with these efforts had been often pointed out, but that doesn’t seem to shut down the assembly line: they examine racism, but rely on antiquated tropes, such as “The White Savior” and “The Magical Negro.” With the recent rise of #BlackLivesMatter and Whites claiming to have become “woke,” you would think that, finally, Hollywood would wake up and make movies that would appeal to Black audiences — by reflecting their experience from a Black perspective. Sadly, Son of the South, though directed by Spike Lee’s longtime editor Barry Alexander Brown, is not one of those films.
Son of the South is based on the autobiography of Civil Rights activist Bob Zellner, and he’s led a very fascinating life. He was born and raised in small-town Alabama; his grandfather was a Klansman. Yet Zellner chose to go in an entirely different direction; he was arrested 18 times with John Lewis and the Freedom Riders. Zellner and his wife remain activists today. However, little of this no-doubt painful part of Zellner’s courageous story makes the film. Instead, the movie is content to be little more than an Afterschool Special entry on the importance of White people saving Black people.
First off, Son of the South is confusingly structured. The film begins with Zellner (Lucas Till) being led to his own lynching by a group of Klansmen. We learn that he got into this fix because Zellner has been working on a college paper about race relations. We then flash back to Zellner and four of his classmates talking about the aforementioned assignment at their Methodist college. As part of his research, Zellner wants to attend the church where Rev. Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier) will be speaking. He’s warned not to do this by his professor, who compares the battle for Civil Rights Movement to what went on in Nazi Germany (the first of many preachy moments). After Zellner attends the church service the college tries to expel him and his classmates. That’s when the Klan shows up, a cadre that includes his grandfather (Brian Dennehy). They have it out with Zellner in the middle of the street, alongside his liberal father.
It’s a bit jarring to suddenly have Zellner’s grandfather emerge as a Klansman and his enlightened dad pop into the picture. The necessary backstory isn’t supplied until far later in the film. Without that vital information, the family fight is bewildering. It’s also somewhat perplexing: why is Zellner drawn to the Movement? We don’t see him exposed to racism until far into the film, when a woman chides a young Zellner for drinking out of a Colored water fountain. That would have made for a far more powerful opening, especially if it had led to our being clued into the fact that his grandfather was part of the Klan. By scrambling up Zellner’s narrative chronologically, Son of the South ends up undercutting the power of its examination of racism from a White perspective.
After meeting with a group of communists and activists and resisting his fiance (Lucy Hale who is vastly underused)’s discouragement, Zellner decides to join the Civil Rights Movement. Again this decision comes off as hasty, with little explanation for his passion for justice. Till plays the protagonist as a man as bland as White Bread. What drives him to become a Southern dissident?
And something must be said about the violence inflicted upon Black bodies. Many White filmmakers are particularly fond of this trope, and Son of the South follows suit. As the Freedom Riders arrive in Montgomery, they are immediately attacked by an angry White mob. White women beat Black women with their purses. White men bash in Black men’s heads. In the midst of all this, Zellner bravely ventures out to carry a Black woman to safety. The irony is breathtaking: rather than focus on the Freedom Riders, Son of the South singles Zellner out as the White savior.
And there is more. Many of the images in this disturbing scene parallels the treatment of protestors during the public actions taken by #Black Lives Matter. In that sense, the film is quite timely. But Hollywood’s perspective remains skewed — it feels it needs to reach out and praise the courage of do-gooder bystanders. What we need is to see the world through the eyes of Black activists, even though that might be frightening to White audiences reluctant to deal with the unmediated truth.
After the Freedom Riders incident, Zellner breaks up with his fiance and takes up with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The rest of the film focuses on that part of the man’s life. Only one character questions why a White boy from Alabama has joined the Civil Rights Movement — but no answer is forthcoming. Instead of exploring in detail how and why Zellner became an activist — the challenge that came with educating White people about racism — we are fed vague inspirational phrases like “do what’s right” and “take a stand.” Hollywood appears to be well behind the country. Who doesn’t know that people took a stand during the Civil Rights Movement? That many are continuing to do so today? What would have been refreshing would be a film that looked at commitment with some judicious skepticism. Who takes that stand? Why? Who gets credit for it? Who gets punished for it?
Attempting to answer those questions would have made this a far different biopic than what we are handed: another film about Black people made for White people. Zellner was a genuine pioneer and he collaborated with a number of revolutionary Black leaders — we (and he) deserved more than a sliver of his life capped by an unsatisfying wrap-up. (Zellner’s lifelong commitment to anti-racism causes barely rates a mention.) Son of the South means well but, as in politics, good intentions are not enough.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.