Producers: Michael Jefferson, David Kang, Bill Black, Eve Pomerance, Colin Bates and Stan Erdreich Director: Barry Alexander Brown Screenplay: Barry Alexander Brown Cast: Lucas Till, Lex Scott Davis, Lucy Hale, Jake Abel, Shamier Anderson, Ludi Lin, Dexter Darden, Sienna Guillory, Chaka Forman, Mike C. Manning, Nicole Ansari-Cox, Sharonne Lanier, Byron Herlong, Julia Ormond, Brian Dennehy and Cedric the Entertainer Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Barry Alexander Brown has directed features and documentaries before, but is probably best known as an editor, having worked regularly with Spike Lee on many of his best films since 1988. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Lee serves as an executive producer on Brown’s adaptation of Robert Zellner’s 2008 memoir “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,” which he co-wrote with Constance Curry.
“Son of the South,” as the film has been rather blandly retitled, is an able, well-intentioned but fairly predictable tale of a young Alabaman’s decision to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and become an activist in the movement for civil rights.
Lucas Till plays Zellner, who’s introduced as a student at a Montgomery college. Challenged by a professor with whom he took a course in race relations, he and a few friends did some in-field research, meeting Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier) in the process, and they were not only threatened with expulsion by the school but menaced by the KKK, including Robert’s own grandfather (Brian Dennehy, in his final film role). (By contrast his father, played by Byron Herlong, had repudiated his racist beliefs years before, and flashbacks to his childhood—where he’s played by Will Mossek, indicate that he was affected by his father’s progressive attitudes.)
The film follows Zellner’s unlikely immersion in the civil rights struggle, which lost him his college girlfriend Carol (Lucy Hale) but introduced him to another, the lovely Joanne (Lex Scott Davis). It also brought him into contact with Jon Lewis (Dexter Darden), whom he came to consider his mentor, and other SNCC members like James Forman Sr. (played by his son Chaka Forman) and a fellow simply called Reggie (Shamier Anderson), who initially suspects him of being a spy.
What follows is fairly unsurprising but nonetheless affecting, and shot through with traces of mordant humor, most courtesy of Zellner’s off-the-cuff remarks to friend and foe alike. Zellner gets involved in demonstrations in which he becomes a special target, raising his consciousness further. In the end, however, he is singled out by racist bullies who threaten his life before relenting, though hardly for altruistic motives. The film ends with him on the cusp of a long career in activism, and refraining to take revenge even on an old childhood acquaintance who’s threatened him, having embraced the principle of non-violence himself.
The strength of Brown’s film is that it isn’t one of those “white savior” stories that have often appeared in films about the civil rights movement. It’s Zellner who’s saved here, through his own efforts but also in response to the injustices he sees committed first-hand. And though in telling his story Brown’s approach, as writer, director and editor, is quite conventional, resulting in a picture that’s cinematic prose rather than the poetry Lee has often achieved, it’s certainly earnest. The other technical contributions–John Rosario’s cinematography, Eloise Stammerjohn’s production design, Michelle A. Green’s costuming and Steven Argila’s score—are similarly straightforward.
Till’s likable performance anchors the picture, although he occasionally overdoes the cockiness. Everyone else does a perfectly adequate job, though little is really asked of them. It should be noted that Cedric the Entertainer, Dennehy and Julia Ormond, probably the most familiar members of the cast, have little more than cameos.
“Son of the South” is a pretty old-fashioned, unimaginative contribution to the filmography on the civil rights struggle, but it’s earnest and instructive, and a tribute to one of its unsung heroes.