Fine civil rights drama in ‘Son of the South’; Leonard Cohen gimmick runs dry in dull Gabriel Byrne dramedy ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’

Push back: Lucas Till stars as civil rights hero Bob Zellner in ‘Son of the South’.

SON OF THE SOUTH *** (106 minutes) M
Joining the wave of issue-driven films about being black in America comes a very solid small-scale bio-drama from producer Spike Lee that looks at the growth of the Civil Rights movement from a very white perspective.

Set in the early 1960s in a very segregated Alabama, we meet high schooler Bob Zellner (Lucas Till from MacGyver), a clean-cut lad who, as part of a school project, naively attends with several of his classmates a gathering of black people in a local church.

The event is to mark the fifth anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an act of defiance against segregation on buses inspired by the culture-shifting moment when Rosa Parks refused to shift her racially assigned seat on a bus. In attendance is Rosa Parks (Sharonne Lainer) and preacher Ralph Abernathy (Cedric the Entertainer), as well as a bunch of white and loud protesters outside.

Thus begins Zellner’s real-world education about the hard realities of life in the South. These revelations don’t come as much of a surprise to him given his family’s legacy with the Ku Klux Klan, which includes his grandfather (Brian Dennehy) as a proud member.

Complemented by archival news footage, a sturdy lead turn from Till and Lex Scott Davis as young black activist Joanne, the film plays out as a fine, if unremarkable period drama about Bob Zellner, based on his memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek.

The direction by screenwriter Barry Alexander Brown gets a little ham-fisted in spots and suffers from some unnecessary and awkward stylistic touches, but otherwise paints a convincing picture of Zellner’s journey from privileged white boy to defiant man of principle.

As is almost always the case with these sorts of films, the most impressive performances in Son of the South are also the ones least likely to be heralded because they portray characters who are not designed to be likeable or all that sympathetic.

Playing Zellner’s loving fianc√© Carol Anne, Lucy Hale does a great job registering the changing nature of their relationship as her husband-to-be gets more involved in the raucous Civil Rights movement. She’s looking forward to marriage and a contented, stable white-bread life in the suburbs. She’s not interested in all this fuss and bother over black people. It’s a nicely daubed portraiture of a woman who doesn’t want her comfort zone violated.

Most striking of all, though is the Brian Dennehy as Zellner’s racist grandfather, a loathsome man for whom the principles of White Power are so second nature he can’t even bring himself to shake the hand of a young woman of colour.

This was apparently the final film performance from Dennehy, who died before the film was released.

As a postscript to a career that spanned five decades across film, TV and theatre (including two Tony awards) his performance in Son of the South serves as a fitting demonstration of his commitment to conviction.

DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN * 1/2 (101 minutes) MA
An inoperable brain tumour prompts a world-weary literature professor, played by an aptly cast Gabriel Byrne, to reassess his life, his priorities and his strained relationship with his adult son and daughter.

He also has to deal with vivid hallucinations that include regular visits from his dead father.

Written and directed by Canadian Matt Bissonnette, the film is neither particularly funny or all that insightful as Byrne slouches through the film with an uninspired air of “whatever happens, happens”.

The film tries pulling off a couple of “twists” but they fall as flat as the heavy use of works by Leonard Cohen that are studded throughout the story as though they automatically bestow upon the film a rarefied profundity. They don’t.

Bissonnette also used Cohen’s work in Passenger Side (2009) and Looking for Leonard (2002).

His infatuation with Cohen’s work might well be admirable, but on the evidence of Death of a Ladies Man it might be time for him to seek a new source of inspiration. Whatever novelty or distinction Cohen’s presence was meant to introduce into the film dries out long before the credits mercifully roll.