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Movie Discussion Resource

Movie Discussion Resource: Son of the South (2021)

Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.

Genre: Drama/biography
In the genre of “MLK/FBI”, the “John Lewis: Good Trouble” documentary, and the outstanding “Selma” of a few years ago (among others).
M (thematic content, violence throughout, strong racial Slurs)
Length: 100 minutes
Starring Lucas Till, Lucy Hale, Brian Dennehy
Director: Barry Alexander Brown
Executive Producer: Spike Lee

Brief synopsis
A true story based on Bob Zellner’s autobiography, ‘The Wrong Side of Murder Creek’, set in 1961 in Montgomery, Alabama. A Klansman’s grandson must choose which side of history to be on during the Civil Rights Movement. Defying his family and white Southern norms, he fought against social injustice, repression and violence to change the world around him. Richard Roeper writes: This is an old-fashioned and borderline corny biopic that looks like it could have been made 40 years ago – but it’s also a true-life story about a man who denounced his racist lineage and dedicated himself to the cause, a man who is still with us today, and it’s a story well worth telling. We follow the journey of enlightenment experienced by Bob (Lucas Till) as he transitions from sideline sympathizer to front-line activist in the civil rights movement, in an emotionally charged story that packs a solid punch, serves as a valuable history lesson and, sadly, reminds us that more than a half-century later, we still have a long, long way to go. We pick up Bob’s story in Montgomery, Alabama, as he’s just a few months from graduating from a Methodist college, at which point he’ll head north to the Ivy League school of his choosing – quite an achievement for a wrong-side-of-the-tracks son of a preacher and a schoolteacher. Bob is a movie-star handsome, well-liked guy who’s engaged to the beautiful Southern belle Carol Anne (Lucy Hale), who comes from a moneyed family and is just tickled pink about their prospects together. As one of Bob’s good ol’ boy buddies says as they clink beers in a honky tonk: “To Bob: free, white and 21.” Bob believes in the burgeoning civil rights movement, but mostly in an academic sense, literally. For a thesis on race relations, Bob and a handful of classmates make the journey to meet Rev. Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer) and Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lanier), who are amused by Bob’s naivete but graciously welcome the group. This sets off a chain of events where Bob bears witness to the horrific racism perpetuated by government officials, police and white citizens on Black activists, and changes the course of his life to join the movement. Bob’s grandfather (Dennehy) plays Bob’s Klan leader grandfather, who is horrified by his grandson’s actions. Sixty seconds after this guy appears onscreen, we detest him – and of course, that’s a testament to how quickly Dennehy could own a part. The fight for equality isn’t over, and this story is as relevant today as it was back when Bob Zellner’s college friends didn’t see anything oppressive or offensive about celebrating someone as “free, white and 21.”

Questions for discussion
The film may be a catalyst for conversation leading into deep sharing and mutual support. Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie, such as: 

  • What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
  • What themes are explored?
  • What assumptions were embedded in the story? 
  • What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
  • Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience?
  • Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind? 

Watching on the sidelines; the journey to activism and change
UK Film Review: “the film is… a message to well-meaning white America that good intentions mean nothing if they’re left on the sidelines.” What’s important is to have the courage to do the right thing 🙂 in the moment. Rosa Parks said, “Not choosing is a choice.” Bob made a choice – a costly choice. He was earnest and well intentioned. But he needed saving himself and went through hell and back. Aligning himself with the Civil Rights movement, he was beaten up, and risked loss of future prospects and status, and so much more. Bob decided what side he would be on and how involved he would get. 
=> Share your own experiences of ‘watching on the sidelines’. There may also be stories of the journey to activism to share.

George Floyd – 25th May 2021 is the one year anniversary of his death
George Floyd died while being detained by Minneapolis police officers. Sixty years after the ‘Son of the South’ story unfolded, we still have racism and horrific violence perpetrated against people of colour. The fight for equality is far from over. Indigenous people are treated overall much worse by the police and prisons in Australia’s judicial system than black Americans are in the U.S. Adult Indigenous Australians are 11 times more likely to be in prison than other Australians, whereas black Americans are “only” three times as likely to be in prison as the average American. The death rates in “police custody” (before getting to prison) are seven times higher for Indigenous Australians than all Australians. In Australia in 2020, 4.7% of Indigenous men were incarcerated, compared with 0.4% of all men. For the population as a whole, those numbers are 2.6% of Indigenous people, and 0.2% of all people.
=> Sixty years on from the historical setting of the film, has much changed? Are there signs of hope? Whose interests are being served by the ongoing, deeply entrenched systems of inequality and racism? 

Wrong side of history/Right side of history
The saying ‘right side of history’ is a relatively new phrase. US President Obama frequently used the phrase, eg “I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.” Western culture assumes each shift in the values of the dominant culture constitutes moral progress. Is that so? There have been massive societal and social changes (though not really the subject of the movie) but ‘progress’ has never been a predictable forward leaning phenomenon, where each change gives way to a new stage in human progress, from darkness to enlightenment. We love the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’ (delivered in a sermon at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, though the words were from Theodore Parker). But is this assertion true? Sometimes it feels like treading water, and history repeating itself. MLK Jr King was a hopeful realist who believed that because God is just and righteous, so justice and righteousness would prevail. If justice is to prevail, people who hope for justice must also become and be advocates for justice.
=> how do you respond to ideas like the ‘right side of history’, and ‘the moral universe bends towards justice’.  What experiences and biblical insights shape your thinking?

Courageous leadership
We stand on the shoulders of workers, organizers, advocates, and leaders who have fought for a more just world. In the movie there are several Civil Rights leaders who are assigned ‘minor’ roles. James Forman Sr. was a prominent African American leader in the American Civil Rights movement during the 1960s. As executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for much of the 1960s, he played an essential role in many of the seminal events of the Civil Rights movement, including the freedom rides, the Birmingham movement, and the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. John Lewis led the Freedom Riders. Rosa Parks was depicted as the subject of an interview by Bob and some senior College students as part of their thesis on race relations. 
=> Who are some of the courageous leaders you appreciate, and who inspire you?

© Rev Sandy Boyce 22nd May 2021 Pilgrim Uniting Church, www.pilgrim.org.au
This resource is freely available to download and copy but kindly attribute copyright