What does it look like to do the right thing, when you’re a grandson of a Klansman living in the deep South in the early ‘60s?
What does it look like now?
First-time director Barry Alexander Brown, a longtime Spike Lee collaborator who edited the films “Do the Right Thing” and “BlacKkKlansman,” thinks the answer, in both instances, is about making a choice to do something.
That’s the message he’s hoping to send with “Son of the South,” his film that tells the true story of Bob Zellner, a descendant of Klansmen who became the first white field secretary of civil rights group the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The movie, executive produced by Lee, was shown at the American Black Film Festival on Wednesday night.
“I didn’t want to do a film that would point fingers. I wanted to make a film that would inspire you to get out and do something,” he said in an Instagram Live Q&A following his movie’s online screening.
“Even now, you don’t get to stand on the sidelines. You don’t get to say, ‘Aw, that was bad what happened to that guy in Kenosha, but I’m not going to do anything,” he said, referencing the recent shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who is now paralyzed after Officer Rusten Sheskey shot him in the back seven times.
“No. We’re in this country all together,” the white director, who’s a longtime friend of Zellner’s, said.
“Son of the South,” which is dedicated to Zellner’s “friend and mentor” (according to the end credits) late civil rights leader John Lewis, underscores a message of action with the real words of Rosa Parks (played by Sharonne Lanier) .
“There’s going to come a time when something really bad happens in front of you, and you’re going to have to decide which side you’re on,” Parks tells Zellner (Lucas Till) onscreen. The scene is based on an actual conversation that the two had at First Baptist Church in Montgomery in 1961.
“Not choosing is a choice,” she tells him.
Based on Zellner’s memoir “Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement,” the film follows Zellner in his early 20s as he decides he no longer wants to be a “monster” (his word) like his racist peers and grandfather. And so he makes a choice to join the civil rights movement, incurring plenty of beatings and threats along the way.
“You come to Birmingham, I’ll put a bullet in your head myself,” Zellner’s grandfather (played by Brian Dennehy) says in the movie. It’s something the Klansman told Zellner in real life, too, Alexander Brown confirmed.
Zellner continued his activism throughout his adulthood — he’s 81 now — and was arrested 17 times in five years because of antiracism demonstrations.
But “Son of the South” is not a cliched “white savior” tale, Alexander Brown assured a reluctant Lee when the two started talking about the project. Lee only signed on to produce after Alexander Brown convinced the legendary filmmaker that the movie was not about a white man rescuing a non-white person.
It’s “a film about a guy who’s actually saved by the civil rights movement,” Alexander Brown argued.