Although he occasionally uses a broad brush dipped in primary colors while fashioning his admiring portrait of Bob Zellner, the grandson of a Ku Klux Klansman who improbably evolved into a civil rights activist during the early 1960s, filmmaker Barry Alexander Brown shrewdly and intelligently avoids most of the “white savior” clichés common to such scenarios in “Son of the South.” Based on Zellner’s memoir “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,” and available starting Feb. 5 in limited theatrical runs and on digital platforms, Brown’s well-crafted and period-persuasive biopic strikes a dramatically sound and emotionally satisfying balance between the moral awakening of its white protagonist and his relationships with sometimes encouraging, sometimes skeptical Black leaders and foot soldiers.
The movie’s opening minutes indicate just how dangerous it could be for a white Southerner to be viewed as a “race traitor” in the days of segregation, and that threat continues to percolate just below the surface after “Son of the South” flashes back a few months to find Bob Zellner (Lucas Till, consistently engagingly and affectingly sincere) near graduation at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala.
Appreciably more enlightened than most of his classmates, but by no means a crusading firebrand, Bob sets out with friends to research a term paper on race relations by interviewing Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier) when they appear at a local church to mark the fifth anniversary of the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott. One of Bob’s professors (Nicole Ansari-Cox), a German émigré who pointedly references her witnessing of Nazi brutality, strongly advises him to avoid a potentially combustible situation. Indeed, even Abernathy tells the wide-eyed white boy that, hey, he might not know what he’s in for. But Bob persists — and is nearly arrested and almost expelled from Huntingdon.
One thing leads to another, and Bob is drawn into contact with sympathetic white liberals, including real-life British journalist Jessica Mitford (disconcertingly played by Sienna Guillory as only slightly less ditzy than Geraldine Chaplin’s BBC correspondent in “Nashville”). More important, he has his eyes opened by Rosa Parks, who reveals that she was hardly the accidental hero her mythos might suggest when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. There are times, she tells Bob, when pragmatic calculation is necessary while you’re keeping your eyes on the prize.
(This is probably a good place to note that both Sharonne Lanier and Cedric the Entertainer should be kept on speed dial for anyone planning a full-length biopic of either of the civil rights icons they portray here.)
Bob’s Methodist minister father (Byron Herlong), long ago converted from racism during a unique experience recalled relatively late in “Son of the South,” literally gives his son his blessing as Bob sets out on a path that crosses those of Freedom Riders in Birmingham and protesters in McComb, Miss. (A nice touch: A young Black woman marching alongside him in McComb is positively gobsmacked when she realizes that he isn’t just “passing,” but is really white.) But Carole Anne (Lucy Hale), Bob’s initially supportive fiancée, eventually expresses, as initially supportive fiancées usually do in stories like this, engagement-ending disapproval. When he asks, if only for the sake of argument, what Jesus might do, she has none of it: “We both know you’re not anybody’s savior.” That, he cannot deny.
And then there’s Bob’s grandfather, fearlessly played by Brian Dennehy in one of his last screen appearances as an unashamed and incorrigible white supremacist who doesn’t need a Klan robe to boldly flaunt his true colors. Much has been made of Dennehy’s late-career performance as a lovable figure in “Driveways,” and rightly so. But if there is posthumous awards buzz to be generated, it really should be sparked by his work here, if only for the scene in which his character chillingly warns Bob that if he sees his grandson in a civil rights demonstration, “I’ll put a bullet in your head my own damn self.” He doesn’t raise his voice. He doesn’t have to.
On the other side of the racial divide, Lex Scott Davis infuses a welcome amount of conviction into the thinly written, borderline-stereotypical role of Joanne, a well-educated young black woman who’s sharp enough to beat Bob at chess, and sweet enough to appraise him as a possible sweetheart. Aptly cast as his father, civil rights activist James Forman, Chaka Forman brings the right touch of incredulity throughout his early interactions with Bob. And Shamier Anderson steals every scene that isn’t bolted to the floor as Reggie, a movement veteran who suspects the worst of Bob, and for a long time doesn’t appear to care whether he’s right or wrong.
After his decades of exemplary work as editor for Spike Lee (who serves as an executive producer on this film), Mira Nair and Tony Kaye, it’s hardly surprising that writer-director Brown is so adept at smoothly and convincingly intertwining archival news footage with his narrative in “Son of the South.” But he also impresses with his expertise when it comes to vivid evocations of the ’60 Deep South. All that redneck talk about “Commies” in the civil rights movement may sound goofy, but it will ring true to anyone who has lived through or researched the movie’s period setting.
Better still, his fictionalized — and to a large degree romanticized — drama may inspire many viewers to learn more about the events depicted in “Son of the South” by sampling a documentary such as Stanley Nelson’s “Freedom Riders” (2010), which recently was added to the National Film Registry. Truth to tell, those two films would constitute a thought-provoking double bill.