When faced with the reality of injustice, those with privilege can choose to ignore this reality, or they can choose to acknowledge their privilege and do something to change it. Even those who are not actually racist often choose the former, more comfortable option, continuing to live their privileged life thinking things will change by themselves eventually. While the trend is slowly starting to shift nowadays as more white people are standing up to racial injustice, things were different in the 50’s and 60’s and especially in the American South, where the Ku Klux Klan reigned unchallenged. Based on Zellner’s autobiography The Wrong Side of Murder Creek and dedicated to the memory of prominent Civil Rights activist John Lewis, who sadly passed away last year, Son of the Southtells the true story of Bob Zellner (Lucas Till), a white student from Alabama who became invested in the Civil Rights cause in spite of the deeply racist culture in which he was raised, including his own Klansman grandfather (played by Brian Dennehy, for whom the movie will unfortunately be released posthumously).
The film starts with Zellner and his friends being expelled from their university for attending a Civil Rights rally at a black church as part of their research for their senior paper on race relations. While his friends give up and simply move to another university, Zellner decides to continue supporting the Civil Rights cause and joins prominent activist Virginia Durr (played by Julia Ormond)’s cause to help the Freedom Riders, a group of activists of mixed races traveling together by bus through Southern states to challenge segregation in bus transport, as they are met with violence while passing through Montgomery, Alabama. Invigorated by this experience, Zellner attempts to join the Freedom Riders himself but fails to get on the bus before it leaves – only to realise later that he had been lucky, as every single person on the bus had been arrested at their next stop in Jackson, Mississippi. This does not stop him however, as he then decides to travel to McComb, Mississippi to volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), eventually becoming its first white field secretary. He also falls in love with Joanne (Lex Scott Davis), a black woman he had met on the Freedom Ride in Montgomery who had stayed behind due to injury before joining him in McComb.
While being a part of the Civil Rights movement and becoming friends with black people for the first time, Zellner is forced to reckon with the racism in which he had been raised, and the racist acts he had committed as a child while being pressured by his brothers. He is also forced to challenge the racist assumptions he still holds, not only against black people but also against Asians as he works together with fourth generation Chinese immigrant Derek Ang (Ludi Lin) while under Durr’s tutelage. Finally, he also has to confront the racism of his own family and friends, as his grandfather comes to McComb personally to threaten him, and his former friend almost has him lynched after seeing him marching at a rally.
While Zellner definitely comes out of these experiences as a better person, he still faces the problem of acting as a “white saviour”, being a white person within a movement formed by and for black people to claim basic rights such as voting or not being killed for sport, and often speaking on their behalf. However, unlike the many other white-saviour-narrative movies out there, black characters in Son of the South actually acknowledge the protagonist is acting as such and tell him to step aside after a while and let them fight for their own rights. With a premise like this, Son of the South could have been a great opportunity to subvert this white saviour trope, and have its white protagonist actually be presented as being wrong and acknowledging it at the end.
Unfortunately, the ending completely nullifies this potential by showing Joanne and Reggie (Shamier Anderson) welcoming Zellner into their family after he comes back from his friends’ attempt to hang him, forgiving him and even calling him the n-word amicably, as if they are the ones who realised that they were wrong in how they treated him. Really? That’s quite disappointing coming from a film that has Spike Lee as an executive producer, a filmmaker who won many awards for his masterful exploration of racism and race relations in his work.
While it is important for white people to not be passive to racial injustice and to speak up against privilege, it is equally important to let people of colour and other marginalised groups speak up for themselves and let their own voices be heard rather than taking it upon ourselves to speak on their behalf. While Bob Zellner definitely did much more than the vast majority of white Southerners at the time (or nowadays for that matter) to combat racism and should be commended for it, it is also important to acknowledge that his white saviour mentality was problematic and is still a major problem to this day. The fact that the film was not directed by Lee himself but by his long-time collaborator as an editor Barry Alexander Brown, who is white, definitely contributes to the rather insensitive message that it unfortunately ends up conveying, most likely in spite of Brown’s best intentions. What is important is that we all acknowledge that this issue exists, and do our best to avoid perpetuating it.