Son of the South (2021) Review
AN INFORMATIVE, YET A MIDDLING FILM
Over the years, the dramatic efforts of biopic endeavors have been something of a cinematic fascination with Hollywood, finding filmmaking talents both in front and behind the camera flocking to be a part of these theatrical motion pictures. While the idea of creating a biographical feature film about someone and / or some event isn’t anything new, it is something that’s quite beguiling of capturing the essence / mystique of a character who is based in real life and presenting he / she for a dramatic picture. Some of these endeavors might shed light on their entire life (providing the “life and times” of a particular person), while others might focus on a particular moment and / or a significant point of their lives. Recently, Hollywood has somewhat basked in the idea of creating biopic dramas; finding many talented actors / actresses getting their chance to shine and “dig deep” within their characters to create some powerful and sometimes high caliber performances of their careers. In truth, biopic dramas can pull from many stories of famous individuals from famous leaders (The Queen and Lincoln), to powerful figures of state (Darkest Hour and Vice), to real-life scenarios of unsung heroes (Sully and Patriots Day), to business moguls (Steve Jobs and The Founder), to musicians (Straight Outta Compton and Bohemian Rhapsody), and to literature minds (Finding Neverland and Goodbye Christopher Robin). Now, Vertical Entertainment and Clear Horizons as well as director Barry Alexander Brown presents the latest film in the biographical foray with the release of Son of the South; a theatrical movie into the life of Robert Zellner. Does this film find a proper balance historical poignancy and cinematic entertainment or is a forgettable project that gets lost within its own narrative?
Born in Alabama in 1939, Bob Zellner (Lucas Til) enjoys a life of quiet privilege. He’s the son of a liberal Methodist minister, grandson to a powerful figure in the Alabama Klu Klux Klan, he’s a top student at Huntingdon College with a gorgeous young fiancé named Carole Anne (Lucy Hale), and has the prospects for a comfortable and promising future set before him. All that changes when he’s assigned to do a group project on race relations during his final stretch of college years; finding Zellner and his classmates discouraged from talking to African American citizens about the issue but choose to attend a Black Church service anyway, with prominent civil rights figures such as Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lainer) in attendance. They narrowly escape arrest from the authorities and are threatened with expulsion for their actions. For Bob, however, the experience proves to be eye-opening and soon finds himself caught in the middle of civil rights movement; coming into contact with members of Freedom Riders and SNCC.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing my opening paragraph (and this one as well) from my review of 2019’s Tolkien….Within the many viewings of movies that I’ve seeing over the years, biopic dramas features are (to me) quite endearing to watch. Most of these endeavors are pretty well-made and usually a sense of “Oscar-bait” and / or “award contenders” from upcoming award seasons in Hollywood. To that degree, the features being told have also been quite compelling to watch, especially ones that uncover the lives of pronounced individuals and the affect that they left on history (be it entertainment industry, literary realms, or even in historical affairs of nations). Of course, this also brings out some captivating performances from some of Hollywood’s best and brightest actors and actresses as well as showcasing some unknown talents. Some of my personal favorites include Lincoln (love Daniel Day-Lewis in that movie), Finding Neverland (such an endearing / magical story), Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman’s commanding performance was great), and Bohemian Rhapsody (love the music and Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury). Altogether, while the practice of producing biopic features isn’t exactly new, the past few years have reached pinnacle age of biographical storytelling for moviegoers.
Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Son of the South, a 2021 biopic endeavor that seeks to examine the life of passive activist of the civil rights moment Robert Zellner. With so many (and I do mean many) biographical feature films out there, it’s hard to get a prominent fixture for a theatrical release, which is probably why most haven’t heard about Son of the South. I surely didn’t hear much “buzz” about this movie on the websites that I frequently visit for movie news. That’s why I was a bit caught off-guard when I came across this movie. As with other 2021 movies that I’ve posted (so far), I came across Son of the South on while I was Fandango and seeing what was playing at my local theater. With a large portion of the films that I’ve already seeing that were currently playing, Son of the South was the only movie I hadn’t seeing yet. So, I decided to check out the film’s movie trailer online to see what it was about. Judging from the trailer alone, I kind of had a clear picture of what the film was going to be about…. a biopic film on tackling issues of the civil rights movement (something that seems quite palpable given recent events of today’s world. Plus, I was a bit curious to see the movie as I had zero knowledge of who Bob Zellner was and what did he do towards the movement. With that in mind, I decided to purchase a ticket to go see the movie on my day off from work. And what did I think of it? Well, it was middling endeavor. Despite its meaningful glance at its subject matter (and the events that surround it), Son of the South is a rather frustrating and forgetful project that lacks a dramatic punch to its narrative. There’s a lot to chew on the film’s story, but the taste of it all breeds a tasteless prospect.
Based on the autobiographical book titled by “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek” by Robert Zellner, Son of the South is directed by Barry Alexander Brown, whose previous directorial works include such films like Lonely in America, Last Looks, and The War at Home. With his background more as editor for movies such as Do the Right Thing, The Giver, and BlacKkKlansman, Brown makes this particular film one of his more ambitious project, especially given the subject matter of what Son of the South tackles. In this regard, Brown succeeds in shaping a movie that seems quite enlightening to focus on such a character like Bob Zellner and definitely speaks to today’s views on race. Brown doesn’t shy away from the more brutal and unforgiven aspects of what Zellner’s experience by focusing attention several moments that depict the clashing of races, including a violent act of aggression in the streets with members of the Freedom Riders against white supremacist individuals. It creates a very unsettling effect, which is something that Brown does good at and needs to be in showing this, especially given the events of today’s world. Though it’s not as unnerving as 12 Years a Slave or Detroit, Son of the South acts of violence isn’t made for the faint of heart. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects that the movie has to offer is the simple fact of get to known of Zellner’s story. Personally, I didn’t know anything about Zeller’s life and what the part he played in being a civil right activist. So, I was quite intrigue to see his story (albeit a cinematic take) play out in the feature and how much the conflict arose from him (as an individual) as he decided in choosing a side. He’s definitely one of those unsung heroes in the members of the civil rights movement and I do applaud that this movie gives the platform for Zellner’s story to be heard.
Presentation-wise, Son of the South meets the industry standard of bio feature film endeavors. Granted, the background isn’t anything grand nor elaborate for the story’s events or sequences. So, I expect much from it. That being said, what’s presented works and does feel “naturally” within the context of the narrative; depicting the 60s era stylings and motifs from that point in time in the Deep South region of the United States. In addition, the costume clothing and hair / make-up also feel appropriate and definitely led credence to the film’s authenticity to the time period. Thus, I do have to mention the movie’s “behind the scenes” team, including Eloise Crane Stammerjohn (production design), Pamela. G. Ryan (set decorations), Michelle Green (costume design) as well as the entire hair / make-up team for their efforts in making the film’s aesthetics will natural and speak to the film’s setting and background. Everything else, including the movie’s cinematography and even the score, which was composed by Steven Argrila, is adequate and nothing really memorable or anything that stands out particular. It just gets the job done. That being said, I do have mention that the movie does feature a few songs from that particular era, which are sprinkled throughout the film.
Unfortunately, Son of the South lacks that dramatic punch to its narrative and draws a lot of criticism within its undertaking. Perhaps the most prevalent problem that I notice while watching the movie is the simple fact is that the film itself is remarkable nor memorable in any way. There’s no doubt that the story being told is intriguing and quite informative (as mentioned above), but the way that how its all presented under Brown’s direction lacks a stead deft hand in helming such project. I’m not knocking on Brown credibility as a director, but his approach in how he shaped the movie is quite problematic and leaves a lot of Son of the South in an unremarkable way. This goes back to several biopic films projects that have good stories to tell, but the film that its set in doesn’t quite do the “based on a true story” aspect any justice….and that’s what Son of South is. It’s a disappointment in this regard and its sad that the movie can’t shine in the way it should on Zellner’s life.
Part of the problem lies within Brown’s direction, which is decent enough as the director is capable of shaping a feature film (there’s no doubt about that). However, Brown lacks the finesse and precision of executing a movie quite properly, especially when considering the overall gravitas / dramatic weight that Zellner’s story requires for a theatrical production. In truth, the movie sort of meanders its way through a lot of ground, but in a way that’s quite bland, despite the fact that’s what being covered is quite informative and compelling. More to the point, the feature is quite perplexing because Brown makes Zellner more of a “bystander” for most of the film’s runtime, with the character getting caught up in the story’s greater events. Thus, its quite hard to fully get a read on the character, despite being the main focus of the feature. Even looking beyond that, the film has a plethora of side characters and Brown struggles to find a well-balance meaning in how to circumnavigate all of them; resulting in many of the film’s characters to be either one-dimensional and forgetful, despite them being important figures in both the story and / or in history. Even the film’s ending (or rather climatic portion of the third act) seems rather clunky and unimpressive, with Brown staging events to give momentum that ultimately doesn’t pay up in a satisfying way.
Another problem that the Son of the South faces within its screenplay, which was penned by Brown himself as he plays “double duty” on the feature. Unfortunately, it’s the same problem with the script as it is with his directing, with Brown making the movie rather clunky in how all everything plays out and the dialogue itself can be rather wooden / cheesy at times, despite some particular scenes suppose to be gritty with substance. Moreover, everything does play out in a very formulaic narrative as one can ultimately see where the feature is heading and can easily guess what’s going to happen next. Thus, the framework of Son of the South’s story is quite conventional for a biopic endeavor, with Brown not really creating anything remarkable with the film beyond its subject matter. All of this makes Son of the South a rather informative tale to be told in an otherwise bland feature.
The cast in Son of the South is okay, but ultimately ends up being kind of mixed bag. Granted, mostly everyone involved on this project delivers good performances. However, in terms of acting, none of them truly stand out at being prolithic in their character roles nor memorable in their acting talents themselves. To make it slightly worse, the characters themselves are drawn in rather “broad strokes”, which again is the feature’s problem with the script handling, and makes most of the players seem rather one-dimensional with not enough time to really get to know them beyond their initial setup. Leading the charge in the movie is actor Lucas Til, who plays the film’s main protagonist character Robert Zellner. Til, known for his roles in X-Men: First Class, Monster Trucks, and Hannah Montana: The Movie, has proven to be a capable young actor in all the various projects he’s been and does so again in Son of the South; playing Zellner with an earnest “good ol’ southerner” gentlemen kind of swagger in his performance. In this regard, Til certainly fits the bill for the cinematic take of Zellner. That being said, he is a bit wooden in some of the more dramatic moments in the film; resulting in a lead character that’s not quite up to sniff in substance, despite the meaty substance already proven to be there (again…. furthered by the film’s lacking script direction). Thus, Til’s Zellner comes off as okay, but nothing truly grand or anything like that with the actor lacking the dramatic depth needed for this role.
The only real supporting character that gets to shine in the movie is the character of Joanne, a civil right activist and love interest to Bob Zellner and who is played by actress Lex Scott Davis (Training Day and The First Purge). Davis is good in the role and gets most of the screen-time, which is mostly due to her character sharing an interest in Zellner. Unfortunately, the rest of the supporting players in the film are rather forgetful and thinly sketched, which are mostly there to serve the film’s plot and push things along. This includes actress Lucy Hale (Fantasy Island and Truth or Dare) as Zellner’s sweetheart girlfriend Carol Anne, actor Jake Abel Jak(Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and Supernatural) as Doc (the somewhat antagonist for Zellner in the movie), and actor Ludi Lin (Power Rangers and Mortal Kombat) as Derek Ang. These characters are rather thinly drawn and are mostly serviceable to the greater story of the film (i.e. driving the narrative forward) and seem almost cookie cutter caricatures. Even, seasoned actor Brian Dennehy (William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and Cocoon), who seems to anchor the feature with his theatrical experience, can’t lend that much credence in his portrayal of Zellner’s white supremacist (head clan member of the KKK) grandfather. The scenes he’s in are good and probably the best in the film, but only ultimately boils down to two scenes and that’s it. Kind of wasted opportunity to Dennehy.
My biggest gripe with the cast is in many of the historical / prominent figures that Son of the South introduces (and the acting talents that portray them) get mostly shortchanged and end up being underutilized to the film and / or glossed over to the movie’s time restraints. This includes actress Julia Ormond (My Week with Marilyn and Sabrina) as civil rights activist / lobbyist Virginia Durr, comedian stand-up / actor Cedric the Entertainer (Barbershop and Be Cool) as civil rights activist and Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy, actress Sienna Guillory (Eragon and Lucky Man) as author / civil rights lawyer Jessica Mitford, actor Dexter Darden (The Maze Runner and Joyful Noise) as civil right activist John Lewis, actor Matt William Knowles (Asura and Love Me If You Dare) Freedom Rider member Jim Zwerg, actor Onye Eme-Akwari (Queen of the South and The Inspectors) as lifelong racial equality activist as Charles McDew, and actress Sharonne Lanier (Summer of ’67 and The Resident) as famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks. All of these players are definitely interesting and the talents behind are fine, but the movie doesn’t give anything of them time to shine or even to closely get to know them enough for us (the viewers) to invest in their involvement in Son of the South’s narrative. In truth, most are quickly introduced and completely forgotten about, which is a grave disservice to these historical figures of the civil rights movement.
Alabama native Bob Zellner gets entangled with the larger events of the civil rights movement and must choose a side to belong to in the movie Son of the South. Director Barry Alexander Brown latest’s film takes a closer look into Zellner’s life; shaping a film that definitely has its goals (and commentary heart) in the right place. Unfortunately, despite that admirable attempt, the film lacks that entertainment grip to its name, especially with its pacing problems, choppy narrative, perplexing direction, and thinly-sketched characters throughout. Personally, this movie was pretty “meh”. It wasn’t exactly bad or terrible to watch, but it was just a rather bland and forgetful film, which, given the source material and subject matter, is disappointing nonetheless. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “iffy choice” as some might find a interest in seeing the movie, while a “skip it” will suffice for everyone else as it really doesn’t warrant much beyond its subject and topical discussion. In the end, while Hollywood will continue to look towards historical individuals / events for cinematic treatment, Son of the South is just a middling endeavor; producing an informative film of the life and times of activist Robert Zellner, but lacks an enticing and memorable feature to frame his struggles and accomplishments towards the movement. The sad truth of the matter is that the film will probably fade into the background of both the 2021 movie releases as well as in the biographical feature films category….and that’s a disservice to what Zellner did for the civil rights movement.
2.9 Out of 5 (Iffy Choice / Skip It)
Released On: February 5th, 2021
Reviewed On: February 24th, 2021
Son of the South is 105 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for strong racial slurs and violence throughout, and thematic elements