Yes, “Son of the South” is a 1960s civil rights movie about a white hero with real-life Black icons such as Rosa Parks and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy relegated to supporting roles in the story, and yes, this is an old-fashioned and borderline corny biopic that looks like it could have been made 40 years ago — but it’s also a true-life story about a man who denounced his racist lineage and dedicated himself to the cause, a man who is still with us today, and it’s a story well worth telling.
Executive produced by Spike Lee, “Son of the South” is based on Bob Zellner’s award-winning 2008 autobiography “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,” with writer-director Barry Alexander Brown doing a solid job of re-creating the tinderbox environs of the Deep South in the early 1960s. We follow the journey of enlightenment experienced by Bob (Lucas Till) as he transitions from sideline sympathizer to front-line activist in the civil rights movement, in an emotionally charged story that packs a solid punch, serves as a valuable history lesson and, sadly, reminds us that more than a half-century later, we still have a long, long way to go.
We pick up Bob’s story in Montgomery, Alabama, as he’s just a few months from graduating from a Methodist college, at which point he’ll head north to the Ivy League school of his choosing — quite an achievement for a wrong-side-of-the-tracks son of a preacher and a schoolteacher. Bob is a movie-star handsome, well-liked guy who’s engaged to the beautiful Southern belle Carol Anne (Lucy Hale), who comes from a moneyed family and is just tickled pink about their prospects together. As one of Bob’s good ol’ boy buddies says as they clink beers in a honky tonk: “To Bob: free, white and 21.”
Bob believes in the burgeoning civil rights movement, but mostly in an academic sense, literally. For a thesis on race relations, Bob and a handful of classmates make the journey to meet Rev. Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier), who are amused by Bob’s naivete but graciously welcome the group. This sets off a chain of events where Bob bears witness to the horrific racism perpetuated by government officials, police and white citizens on Black activists, and changes the course of his life to join the movement.
Lucas Till isn’t the most expressive of actors, and there are times when his performance as Bob verges on the bland, but he carries an earnestness about him that suits the part. The showier roles and performances belong to Cedric the Entertainer, who knocks it out of the park as Rev. Abernathy, and the late great Brian Dennehy who in one of his final performances plays Bob’s Klan leader grandfather, who is horrified by his grandson’s actions. Sixty seconds after this guy appears onscreen, we detest him — and of course, that’s a testament to how quickly Dennehy could own a part.
When we get back to a point where schools across the country are filled with students, “Son of the South” would be a valuable tool in any junior high or high school Civics class lesson plan. The fight for equality isn’t over, and this story is as relevant today as it was back when Bob Zellner’s college friends didn’t see anything oppressive or offensive about celebrating someone as “free, white and 21.”