EDITOR’S NOTE: As a fellow Southerner, it was my pleasure to interview Barry Alexander Brown. Although this interview was originally set to be a single feature, after a two-hour conversation it was obvious that there was more than one story to be told. Certainly, there was the story of Barry Alexander Brown as a director/producer/editor and his work with Spike Lee and also the story of Barry’s next feature film, Son of the South. But, what I didn’t expect was that in our dialogue concerning the Deep South and our own experiences of, as Barry describes, the “beautiful, ugly, disturbing and inspiring” parts of the South, another story would emerge. It was a story about our stories. Can we see our lives through the only lens we have – our own – and yet open the aperture to allow more light? Can we change from selfie view to portrait view to landscape? Can we tell our stories from a place of respect for ourselves as well as others? I realized that I needed help to separate the beautiful and inspiring from the ugly and disturbing in my own story of the South. Does shame have to color every aspect or can the parts be separate? I wasn’t sure. So, we called in some help. In the third part of this feature we will interview an expert in race relations and ask the hard questions concerning perspective and language and how we can do a better job of getting them right.
– Robin Jowers Keyser, Editor in Chief
Part II Son of the South
Interview edited for space and clarity.
“SON OF THE SOUTH”, is based on Bob Zellner’s book,“The Wrong Side Of Murder Creek”. We’re transported to Montgomery Alabama, 1961. Bob, grandson of a Klansman, was a junior heavyweight boxing champion in college. But Bob learned directly from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that the way to make a difference was not with his fists but with non-violent resistance.
This is the story of his summer of change – from sympathetic outsider, to one who is pulled further and further into the civil rights movement. His defining moment comes when confronted with a white mob intent on beating a group of black high school students who were marching to a local county courthouse. The teenagers were marching to protest the murder of an African American man, gunned down in broad daylight for the simple crime of trying to register to vote. Bob took action, joining the march and almost losing his life in the process.”
ROBIN: Tell us about your own experience growing up in Montgomery, Alabama and how it relates to Bob Zellner’s story. How was racism a part of your experience? Did you have your own moment when you had to stand up for what was right?
BARRY: As a teenager, the whole race issue hit me hard. Before that time, racism had just been a fact of life. At around the age of 15 it began to hit me: “What’s going on here?” “Is this right?” I became angry and ashamed. I came from a pretty run-of-the-mill Southern family, and in terms of being racist – very racist, ordinary, common, everyday racism.
The thing that saved me was that my father was not a racist. My father just saw whoever he saw; he saw them for who they were. He became my role model and my saving grace because otherwise, if you don’t have somebody in your life that causes you to say, “Oh, but they have a different point of view” then you won’t question the prejudice you’re raised with. The likelihood is you won’t; you won’t come to that yourself. Bob had the same thing. Bob’s father had been in the Ku Klux Klan and his grandfather was in the Klan. As WW II was approaching, his father was sent to Russia, Poland, and Germany as a missionary to convert Jews to Christianity, to save them from the Nazis. He’d been there for quite some time and was really homesick when he was introduced to a Baptist choir from the state of Georgia — an all black choir. This must’ve been around 1938. Bob’s father began to travel with this choir. These people became his home.
In the script, there’s this a scene where Bob’s father is telling Bob, as a boy, the story of how he changed. So he said, “I was kinda traveling through Russia with this choir and something horrible happened. I went color blind. I was in a white country and the people who are my people were black and I knew I was going to have to go back to Alabama and break with the Klan and break with my family.” Because Bob’s father became this person, in 1961 at 22 years old, he could be different because he had that person who was his example of what a person could be.
ROBIN: Tell us how Bob Zellner went from being completely outside the Civil Rights Movement to being in the center of some of the most historic events of that time.
BARRY: Congressman John Lewis was a theology student then, and very much involved in the Nashville movement. He was one of the Freedom Riders. When the Freedom Riders came to Montgomery, there was a riot and Bob ran down and he pulled people out of that riot. He was six feet tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and strong. He was a country boy and he looked like everybody else who were the rioters. So, they didn’t stop him from pulling people out. For Bob, that was one of the defining moments for him. He witnessed a riot, and it was his people who were rioting. It undone him.
Even through that summer — June, July, and August — he had different crossroads he had to cross. Which road was he going to take? He was headed towards graduate school and he was the first person in his family who was going to go to graduate school. Each crossroads led him deeper into The Civil Rights Movement because at each crossroads he had to ask himself, “What kind of man am I?” “What do I stand for, who do I stand for, and what’s right here?” “What is right?” I think for most people who were coming into those crossroads at that moment in time, they turned around and went back. They said, “Oh no, I can’t do this. This is too hard. This is too scary. This is too dangerous. I can’t do it.” At the end of the film, the end of that summer when he should be going off to graduate school, Bob found himself in McComb, Mississippi with other members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was a tiny organization at that moment.
They’d gone there because of the murder of a black farmer named Herbert Lee, who had been murdered by his next door neighbor — a white state senator who had known Herbert Lee and had loaned him the money for Herbert Lee to buy his farm and yet gunned him down in broad daylight when Lee registered to vote. There was a protest held by the students in that town of McComb, the morning that Bob arrived. It was the very first protest in history of Mississippi. Inside his head, Bob tallied up all the reasons why he couldn’t participate in this march. “What would happen to his family back in Alabama?” It would ruin his chances if he got arrested. And, then he heard himself say,”If I go down there being the only white person — if I go down there to the town hall — there is going to be more violence than normal.” And another voice in his head said, “Really, Bob? What is a normal level of violence?’”
He realized in that moment he’d already accepted violence against these people for demanding their basic rights. He joined the march because of that, and in this march there was a riot. And the midst of this riot, the local Klan grabbed Bob and took him out of town to hang him. In that crowd that was there to hang him was somebody who had been on the boxing team with Bob at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. The crowd then realized, “This boy is from Alabama. He’s a white minister’s son from Alabama. We’re about to hang a fellow Son of the South here. Can we do this?” The crowd finally realized they couldn’t. Some of them just couldn’t bring themselves to do that — they were scared. “Now this is murder, we can’t go around and just killing anybody.” But for Bob, this was the final straw — they were gonna kill him for doing nothing more than protesting the murder of Herbert Lee.
He thought deeply. “This isn’t their fight, this is my fight. This is everybody’s fight. It is our fight and this is a fight for the South.” He had to stay and fight and he had to fight to make the South better.
ROBIN: You mentioned you met Bob Zellner a couple of decades ago and it has taken you until now to bring this story together in a way that would do it justice. Did the current times have any influence on your decision to make this film now?
BARRY: Frankly, with the polarization of this country, sadly, I think it is a more favorable atmosphere for this film to be made. I couldn’t figure out for the longest time how to tell it, because it’s just too big. Then it dawned on me: It’s his transition that has everything in the story. His transition is a fascinating story. It’s an interesting story because nobody wakes up one day and says, “This is what I’m going to do politically. This is what I’m going to do.” Whether or not you’re liberal, or whether or not you’re conservative – nobody just wakes up. It’s a process. It’s step-by-step. It’s a human process. That captivated me and that was the story I wanted to tell. This was a story that would allow me to say a lot of things I wanted to say about the South — the South that I grew up in. It also gave me the chance to tell the story of: “This is how people make decisions. This is how people change. This is how people commit themselves and dedicate themselves.” It is not one moment. It is many moments when you are tested. It’s little by little by little. I think too many times people have an idea of, “Why don’t you just do it?” It just doesn’t happen that way. We’re not built that way. That is when I realized it was his transition that was such a great story. In his transition, so many important events happened to him and so many important people crossed his path. People who said things to him. He told Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, “I’m not on anybody’s side here. I haven’t chosen sides. I haven’t chosen this.” Rosa Parks said to him, “Something bad is going to happen right in front of you someday and not choosing is a choice.” Basically she’s saying, “You can’t sit on the fence. You can’t. You are going to be on one side of that fence or the other.”
The theme of this movie is: Not choosing is a choice.
ROBIN: You said you wanted to show the Deep South as “beautiful, ugly, disturbing and inspiring” and to use humor to do that. You most recently worked with Jordan Peele on BlacKkKlansman. His film, Get Out, was disturbing on an epic level — a humorous telling of a nightmare. I’m interested to know: Why did you feel it was important to add humor and to show all sides the South?
BARRY: Interesting enough, Get Out was shot in Alabama just like Son of the South will be. For me, and I think you’re going to know what I’m talking about, when I see most films set in the South, I don’t recognize the South. This is not the place I know. This is not the place I grew up in. In Son of the South, the heroes are Southern and the villains are Southern.
That was the truth. That was the truth, truth. It wasn’t just young Northern students coming down and saving the South. That’s not exactly what happened. Certainly they played an important role and I don’t want to diminish that — they did. But when you look at Son of the South — and I have not changed the story to make it fit this way — when you see the people that are changing Bob: It’s Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.. It’s Virginia Durr and Clifford Durr and it’s John Lewis. These are all Southerners. Rev. King wasn’t from Alabama, but the rest of them were from Alabama. These are the people that are changing things. These are the people that are standing up saying, “Enough is enough. We’re not doing it. We are stopping this.” At the same time, the people that are forcing the suppression are Southern, yes, but they are real people. They are real people — Southerners who love language and stories and humor while remaining monsters when it came to race.
ROBIN: I’m excited to see how you bring all the pieces together. When do you anticipate the film will go into production?
BARRY: With the success of BlackKklansman, I think this is going to push this project up and over, especially with the climate of the times. I think that helps us a great deal. We’re getting this done. We’re getting this done now.
ROBIN: You close your deck for Son of the South with a quote from William Jennings Bryan:
Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.
I am sure that when you chose this quote you were thinking of the life of Bob Zellner; however it seems also relatable to your own life. Have you considered that possibility?
BARRY: It is a very powerful quote. Certainly when I came across it, it hit me and I forget it sometimes, in terms of my own life and my own career –– “What’s in my hands to do? What’s in my power to do?” We can be powerful, we can make things happen. We can make things happen when they seem impossible. I have to keep that in mind. Destiny isn’t something we can wait for. I have to make my own destiny. Thank you for reminding me.
ROBIN: Thank you for reminding me as well. Thank you, Barry. It has been a pleasure.
End of Part II