Son of the South
Lucas Till, Cedric the Entertainer, Sharonne Lanier, Brian Dennehy, Julia Ormond, Lucy Hale
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…well-intentioned but clunky…
The year is 1961, and in the southern United States, Jim Crow laws are still enforced leading to the near sanctioned murders of black Americans. A young student, Bob Zellner (Lucas Till), is writing his senior college paper on race relations and takes the unprecedented step of deciding to try to speak to members of the black community in Montgomery Alabama. Segregation is still in full swing and his appearance at a black church run by Reverend Abarnathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and attended by Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier) threatens to derail his promising academic career.
When news spreads that Zellner and four of his college cohorts went to the church, it not only alerts law enforcement, but brings the Klu-Klux-Klan to his college campus to protest the white students’ involvement with what they consider “negro matters.” Included in the members of the Klan is Zellner’s own grandfather (Brian Dennehy) who warns Bob that he’s getting on the wrong side of things. The consequences of the students attending the service leads to the college demanding they leave before graduation or possibly face arrest.
Bob refuses to leave, and as an academic star bound for a Masters degree at an Ivy League school, he is able to graduate. His life seems on track for success. He’s dating Carol-Ann (Lucy Hale), and will soon leave the South for a life of privilege. However, his interactions with Abernathy and Parks have led him to begin to see the just cause of the Civil Rights movement. His later interactions with Virginia Durr (Juila Ormond) and her husband, who are local activists, set him on a path that leads him to become involved in assisting the Freedom Riders; a group of black and white people who ride a bus through Southern states to protest segregation.
A riot breaks out in Alabama and the freedom riders are savagely beaten by white townsfolk. The scene plays in a brutal fashion and delivers the non-too-subtle message that the South is a bastion of racism and lawlessness. It also offers a chance for Zellner to put himself bodily on the line by going into the crowd to rescue Jessica Mitford (yes, of the Mitford sisters, here played by Sienna Guillroy) and an accomplished young black woman called Joanne (Lex Scott Davis), who will become his romantic interest once Carol-Ann realises that Zellner isn’t going to play by the rules and follow his career path to a prestigious university.
Zellner decides to volunteer with the activist group the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee), which again places him in Joanne’s orbit and cements his conviction to Civil Rights – a conviction that was life long and detailed in his book The Wrong Side of Murder Creek, which director and screenplay writer Barry Alexander Brown used as the basis of the film.
Son of the South is a well-intentioned but clunky film. It rarely moves beyond the quality of a made-for-television biopic. Partly, the cliché driven script is to blame for this, but mostly, it rests on the inert performance by Lucas Till. Till’s emotional range seems to be close to non-existent. When the audience should be seeing righteous indignation, passion or even conflict, there is little to grasp on to. Director Brown also relies on massive exposition dumps at dramatically inappropriate times. There is an overall amateurish feel to the production which does nothing to serve the story, which in the right hands could have been a gripping drama.
Brown also spends little time creating meaningful characterisations for his black characters. It’s understood that it’s Zellner’s story, but without significant representation of the people that Zellner is fighting with and for, the film falls into the trap of placing a white character as the focus for a black struggle. With so many excellent films about the Civil Rights movement, such as Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Son of the South is an also-ran that barely deserves a cinematic release.