“Son of the South” Film Burrows Deeply

by June Pichel Cook

The film Son of the South is based on John Robert (Bob) Zellner’s memoir, “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement.” Zellner, grandson of a Ku Klux Klan chieftain, was at the forefront of the civil rights movement and fighting for social justice. He was arrested 17 times over five years and became the first white field secretary for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

The film was co-produced by Eve Pomerance, who also served as casting director. Zellner is played by Lucas Till; Zellner’s grandfather and KKK Clansman is played by Brian Dennehy. Joanne (Lex Scott Davis) and Carol Anne (Lucy Hale) are the two women in Zellner’s life. Pomerance is familiar to local audiences through her work with Greensboro Arts Alliance and Residency. 

The film, set in the early sixties, interweaves historical events chronicling the evolving social justice and civil rights movement with conflicting qualms facing a young man caught between diverging polarities. 

Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.; the ensuing bus boycott; SNCC; Freedom Riders and lunch counter sit-ins are events etched in history. The film is riveting and cogently reverberates with current riots, the Black Lives Matter movement, and pushback by white supremacists.

Given contemporary events and social injustice, a cogent line asked in the film is “If not now, When? If not me, Who?”

The story shifts between first person narrations to unfolding events. We watch Zellner’s struggle through a series of vignettes. His environment juxtaposes an ingrained, visceral contempt for people of color in stark contrast to his intrinsic sense of human decency and equality. 

He is a young, college-age student whose research on race relations for a college assignment leads to a life-change. The question is why is he so different from those around him who see nothing wrong with lynchings, beating strangers of a different color for “kicks,” or shooting a black man registering to vote.

Zellner is the one person we see evolving in the film; the others are almost stereotypes in their portrayals, but that may be necessary in delivering the story line. The civil rights and social justice movement is an ongoing struggle that doesn’t allow for fifty shades of gray; there are no subtleties with injustice and racism at the core. “Son of the South” reflects the epitome of that injustice in its stark and ugly reality.

Midway through the film, one small scene heralds a transition. Zellner’s plan to go north with his fiancée to pursue a Master’s degree is put on hold for a summer job. Before heading north to a university, he volunteers for SNCC in Atlanta, Ga.

As he travels to Atlanta, he reads a letter of good-bye from his fiancée, who objects strongly to what he was doing. The letter floats out the window. He stops. At the same time, he picks up a turtle to move it off to the side of the road. The turtle pokes its head out of its shell with the slightest of movement. The scene becomes an allegory for a larger movement taking place throughout the South and racial justice unfolding. Small foreshadowing events help the viewer to understand Zellner’s actions as they unfold, particularly family and childhood interactions.

The Burma Shave signage along the road is nostalgic for those of us who always delighted in reading the highway messages. Equally nostalgic are the young people gathered and doing the Twist at a local bar.

Zellner’s psychological transformations strike at a fundamental quandary though when trying to understand racism and innate “fear” of another person who is outwardly physically different. That unanswered question still lies beneath the surface of the overt and violent scenes so vividly depicted. The film is not for the squeamish, all the more harrowing because it was (and still is) a reality taking place.

Events hit us with full force, but interwoven are timeless threads of universal human themes, love stories, family struggles, young and old people searching for meaning and/or redefining their lives. 

After seeing the film, the memoir itself becomes a “must read” and the film, a “must see again.”