Son of The South opens with a limp-footed, bloodied Bob Zellner (Lucas Till) dragged toward a noose while he summarises the climate of racial hatred in 1960s Alabama through an emotionless voiceover.
There’s a naive sense of martyrdom in everything about these opening moments, which leads to an initial narrative where everyone quite clearly tells Zellner his ‘but I don’t see what the problem is?’ attitude is obscenely out of touch with reality.
Son of The South is based on Zellner’s memoir, Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement, written alongside fellow civil rights activist Constance Curry. Zellner is the grandson of a Klansman, who became a central figure in the civil rights movement in Alabama and would later become the first white field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
However, the purity that the film is pressing into this dramatisation feels stripped of humanity and reality, as though the initial blasé attitude of Zellner and his friends is seen through the comfortable hindsight of living in the 2020s.
“There will come a time when something really bad happens, right in front of you, and you’re gonna have to decide which side you are on. Not choosing, is a choice.”
There’s a persistent thread of ‘the guilt of inaction’ throughout, with an early flashback where Zellner breaks a young, black boy’s arm from a moving car and later confronts him, expressing – not to his victim at the time, but to his beautiful, white girlfriend in the present – his regret, fear, guilt, and wishing it was him that had been beaten with a baseball bat instead.
It’s a moment where, had Till’s portrayal been less of an emotional void, we could have dived into the sickening realisation of ingrained prejudice and the feeling that even the smallest of acts can perpetuate ongoing horror in the world. But it’s told comfortably, as though the reality is simply a weighing burden instead of an intrinsically woven part of the societal psyche.
It represents the comfortable safety of his position, later engaging in a casual conversation with a photojournalist while screaming brutality and beatings happen less than a few feet away, all around both of them.
There’s no doubt an audience for this film – it’s well-shot, moderately paced, filled with an ensemble of solid performances, toes the line between overwritten and authentic, and is visually beautiful – I’m just not sure who that audience is; it’s too clean, polished, and structured to entice those who won’t turn their eyes away from the terror of history, and it lacks the depth to say anything new or invite any type of fresh discussion.
It would be wonderful to imagine that this film could provoke or do more than be a 100+ minute reminder that as a species, humans are unworthy of consciousness and that our evolution has been undeserved in how much blind hatred we continue to invent for ourselves.
Instead, the film simply retreads familiar ground and shows us another variation on what we’ve always known; humans have the capacity to show immense love, compassion, and kindness, and the capacity to show immense hatred, disgust, and hostility – and that so few of us are capable of not being indifferent to the powerful effects of either side, simply allowing evil to exist everywhere, and history to forever repeat itself.
Director: Barry Alexander Brown
Starring: Lucas Till, Lex Scott Davis, Lucy Hale, Jake Abel, Shamier Anderson, Julia Ormond, Brian Dennehy, Cedric the Entertainer
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