With the spectre of white nationalism once again rearing its ugly head in the guise of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’, Matthew Ornstein‘s profile of the musician, author, actor and lecturer Daryl Davis, Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America couldn’t be more relevant. Davis has an unusual hobby for a black man: he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan in order to convince them to leave the organisation and hand over their robes, medallions and hoods to him.
Davis collects this racist paraphernalia with a view to one day opening a museum, because, as he says, ‘you don’t burn history’ and the KKK is ‘as American as baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet’. There is a particularly sickening scene in Accidental Courtesy in which Davis is showing Ornstein some of the things he has acquired. Davis holds up a t-shirt with an image of Martin Luther King Jr. in a set of crosshairs and the text ‘our dream came true!’ This moment crystallizes everything Davis is seeking to understand.
Davis’s desire to do this stems from a simple question: how can you hate me when you don’t even know me? Ornstein‘s film follows three parallel narrative paths: personal, political and musical, with these streams intersecting at crucial moments. Davis’s worldview was formed by his peripatetic childhood as the son of a US diplomat and the childhood trauma that resulted from his parents’ response to the assassination of MLK.
Stepping On The Dream
We see the residue of this trauma dramatised in an early segment where Davis visits the Lincoln Memorial. While Lincoln sits ‘in his big chair’, the spot on the steps where MLK delivered his historic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963 is commemorated by a small etching in the concrete, upon which oblivious sightseers step. The symbolism of ‘stepping on the dream’ is striking, and brings into sharp relief what fuels Davis.
The gains of the civil rights movement, and the precariousness of these gains, is constantly with Davis as he submerges himself in the murky waters of bigotry. Ornstein accompanies Davis around the country as he plays gigs, gives lectures and meets with both sides of the divide in this violent new epoch of identity politics. What we learn is that Davis is a man who has been cut adrift in a torrent of ideological echo chambers which reduces nuance and historical context to the comforting banality of memes.
Ornstein functions as an audience surrogate. His interjections occasionally betray the degree of his pique, while Davis remains unflappable. There are some strange moments in which an interview subject speaks off-camera to Ornstein while Davis sits by. These are intended to give the scenes an impromptu feel, but have the effect of making them seem scrappy. DPs Sam Gezari and Peter Castagnetti have a keen eye for the possibilities of natural light and subtle movement to enliven the frame, lending scenes a visual grace which serves as a counterbalance to the ugliness and unease depicted.
A Wider Malaise
Whether by accident or design, Accidental Courtesy turns out to be a much more complex work than its offbeat premise suggests. There was the potential for this to be an uplifting tale of strange bedfellows in the fight against fascism; but the times have dictated otherwise and guided Ornstein and Davis down a more febrile path. Far from being a hagiography of Davis, the film confronts his standing as an outlier in this struggle.
The schism in how best to confront the threat of domestic right-wing extremism is brought to the fore in visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose spokesperson Mark Potok describes Davis’s approach as ‘a retail strategy as opposed to a wholesale strategy’. One gets the distinct impression that Davis is regarded by organisations such as this as a devoted amateur whose tactics cannot yield anything but limited results.
The crux of the film is Davis’s visit to Baltimore, where he meets two young Black Lives Matter activists, Kwame Rose and Tariq Touré. This interaction is the most heated in the film. Rose describes Davis as ‘a pimp in a pulpit’, and Touré dismisses Davis’s project as ‘a fetish’. This exchange bespeaks a yawning generational divide, with African-American millennials no longer content to wait for the arc of the moral universe to bend in their favour. This is fuelled in large part by an aggressive police culture in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, and economic policies which are ‘sowing the seeds of crime’.
Rose and Touré are eloquent and impassioned, but what is striking about their solutions is that they often mirror what we hear in Davis’s conversations with the likes of National Socialist Movement commander Jeff Schoep and national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Thomas Robb. The emphasis is on ‘separating our dollars’ and creating ‘independent institutions’ built around an ‘ethnic identity’. As with the rise of Trumpism, this anger is a symptom of a wider malaise afflicting the body politic, which manifests itself in a direct challenge to Davis’s credo of inclusivity, respect and understanding.
Davis’s theory that ‘when two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting’ has never been more apposite. The discourse has been so poisoned by partisan invective that the ‘other’ is reduced to an abstraction. Accidental Courtesy is a provocative piece which delves into the historical roots of where we currently find ourselves. It is less about racism than our response to racism, urging us not to get lost in the weeds of internecine conflict. It addresses the means by which we engage with those who promulgate views antithetical to the values of mutual respect and shared humanity upon which liberal democracy functions.
Ornstein includes the sad coda of election night, when the forces that Davis has been seeking to nullify for decades burst forth into the mainstream. A Trump presidency opens up a new frontier for self-examination, and works like Accidental Courtesy will play a vital role in clearing a path through an often bewildering political landscape.
The film’s most sobering message is that civil rights is not history; that in actions like voter suppression we see the new avenues through which prejudice will seek an institutional foothold. Seen through the prism of recent events, Accidental Courtesy is essential viewing.
What are your views on the depiction of race relations in Accidental Courtesy?
Accidental Courtesy is released in the US on December the 9th. Find international release dates here.
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