Review: Gutless 'Son of the South' botches Bob Zellner's story
Courtesy of VERTICAL Entertainment
A Lifetime movie of the week if there ever was, Barry Alexander Brown’s admirable though botched “Son of the South” is passing as a feature film. A messy biopic about civil right activist Bob Zellner, and based on “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek,” “Son of the South” comes during a moment when the social and political divide couldn’t be more stark, and though nobody is dismissing Zellner’s story, or Brown’s yearning to direct it, you can’t help but squawk at yet another film about the civil rights movement told from the perspective of a white man. It’s basically the watered down version of “Green Book” minus the Oscar pedigree.
Zellner - played her by Lucas Till - was a trailblazing civil rights activist and grandson of an Alabama Klansman who saw past bigotry. “Son of the South” jumps through a variety of hoops to tell his story: from his time serving on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) - becoming the organization's first white field secretary - to his numerous arrests with John Lewis. There’s plenty of ground to cover and Brown casually touches on those moments, but they never make an emotional, refined impact.
“Son of the South” finds Zellner during his senior year at Methodist college in the 1960s. He’s going steady with Carol Anne (Lucy Hale) and has an entourage of pals eager to jumpstart life after school. Everything is smooth sailing for Bob until he enters an all Black church - headed by Rev. Abernathy (a criminally underused Cedric The Entertainer) to finish a group paper on race relations.
You can imagine the reaction to Bob’s tiny, all-white, conservative town when word gets around of his assignment. Not only does the KKK arrive at the university ready to raise holy hell, but it brings Bob’s grandfather (the late Brian Dennehy) out of retirement ready to slap sense into his nonsensical grandson. Zellner’s preacher father arrives to try and simmer tensions before riots break into the streets.
From there “Son of the South” traverses through Zellner’s life with a whimper, and isn’t afraid to show Black women and men attacked on screen despite how numb society has become to it. They’re plenty of white savior moments as well, notably the poorly (and ten minutes too long) staged Freedom Rider sequence where Zellner pulls Joanne (Lex Scott Davis) from the chaos to safety (a forced romantic subplot between the two stalls later in the picture).
“Son of the South'' is a harmless venture that could safely be exhibited in classrooms where it's just as easy to show Ava DuVernay’s more impactful “Selma,” but Brown’s duty - it seems - is to make white folks feel better about their racial bias. Except his screenplay fails to humanize characters of color, tossing them one dimensional arcs and subplots because he feels obliged. “Son of the South” comes up empty handed, a massive failure on the part of Zellner and those whose stories got weaved into this cheesy after school special. They deserved better.
SON OF THE SOUTH opens in select theaters, VOD & Digital on Friday, February 5th