Son of the South Review: Civil Rights heroes shine in Spike Lee’s latest biopic

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Sharonne Lanier and Cedric the Entertainer play Civil Rights activists plays Rosa Parks and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Photo: Vertical Entertainment
Sharonne Lanier and Cedric the Entertainer play Civil Rights activists plays Rosa Parks and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Photo: Vertical Entertainment

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When a young black woman in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, her stand against segregation and disenfranchisement helped spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

Rosa Parks’ actions inspired many leaders of the local Black communities to join the struggle by organising peaceful rallies, marches and sit-ins in order to protest the US government’s racist laws.

In the midst of the movement appeared Southern White activist Bob Zellner who, though being the grandson of an Alabama Klansmen, risked his life by publicly supporting the Black leaders of the civil rights movement.

Zellner’s story of support for the suppressed is faithfully depicted in the dramatised biopic Son of the South, directed by Barry Alexander Brown and produced by Spike Lee.

“Sharonne Lanier’s Parks and Cedric the Entertainer’s Abernathy are phenomenal, particularly in the beginning, and steal the scene whenever they are on screen.”

Set in 1961, the film begins with a beaten and bloodied Bob Zellner (played by Lucas Till) being tied up with a noose around his neck while a group of young white men curse him.

From the onset audiences are shown the deadly consequences to those who support the black community in their fight for freedom.

Rewind one year, Zellner is a senior at all-White Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, and is attending a church service as part of his research for a sociology project on race relations.

Since the service was conducted by civil right activists Rev. Ralph Abernathy (played by Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (played by Sharonne Lanier), Zellner and his friends are expelled from College to the disappointment of his White Supremacist Klansmen grandfather (played by Brian Dennehy).

After Zellner gets caught in the middle of a riot and witnesses the brutality shown towards a bus of peaceful protesters by the white community, he makes the decision to leave everything behind and officially support the group of activists known as the Freedom Riders.

For the most part, the main cast give good performances and portray their respective characters with conviction and honesty.

Sharonne Lanier’s Parks and Cedric the Entertainer’s Abernathy are phenomenal, particularly in the beginning, and steal the scene whenever they are on screen.

Their compelling depiction captures the great zeal and charisma that these two civil rights activists embodied who are worthy of their own stand-alone film.

“Unfortunately, more often than not, Till’s portrayal of Zellner feels awkward and lacks a high level of believability that we get from other performances.”

In one of his last on-screen performances, Brian Dennehy’s portrayal of Bob’s white supremacist grandfather is both raw and chilling.

His delivery is exceptional and his use of expression and demeanor makes for one of the film’s most memorable scenes.

Unfortunately, more often than not, Till’s portrayal of Zellner feels awkward and lacks a high level of believability that we get from other performances.

Till is a competent actor and there are scenes that showcase his ability to deliver lines with real emotion, but unfortunately the script lets him down.

Bob Zellner, played by Lucas Till, attends a church service. Photo: Vertical Entertainment
Bob Zellner, played by Lucas Till, attends a church service. Photo: Vertical Entertainment

Though Brown makes numerous attempts at keeping Son of the South from hitting the usual white saviour cliches, the fact that this film’s focus is on a white college student rather than the iconic black civil rights activists that support him just doesn’t sit well.

It doesn’t help that we are witnesses to cringe-worthy scenes such as Zellner carrying an injured Black college professor in a shot reminiscent of a Superman film, or him saving a baby turtle in an unsubtle bid to highlight his compassionate nature.

Credit must be given to Brown, who, in scripting Zellner’s fight to completely break from his selfish inclinations, reveals the damaging consequences of a family’s bigotry on a child’s perspective.

“And though audiences may not get a comprehensive understanding of the civil rights movement, this film does promote the importance of justice and our call to stand up for the disenfranchised in our community.”

Brown does well to highlight the inner struggle to put the well-being of others ahead of one’s own.

And though audiences may not get a comprehensive understanding of the civil rights movement, this film does promote the importance of justice and our call to stand up for the disenfranchised in our community.

Son of the South, rated M for strong racial slurs and violence, is an adaptation of Bob Zellner’s 2008 memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.

It will be released in cinemas across Australia on 20 May and screening times can be found at www.sonofthesouthmovie.com.au.