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Film Review – Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America (2016; Directed by Matthew Ornstein)

Daryl Davis has a simple question that he wants answered: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” The African-American musician, speaker, and activist has been seeking an answer to that question in a person-to-person manner for over 25 years, and Accidental Courtesy is a documentary film depicting the green shoots and the persistent frustrations of his approach.

Davis is nearly 60 years old, and has performed with major musical artists such as Chuck Berry, Bruce Hornsby, Jerry Lee Lewis, and more over his long career. He has also spent much of his offstage time since about 1990 meeting, conversing with, and even befriending dozens of prominent hardcore racist members of the Ku Klux Klan, the reactionary fraternal American white supremacist organizational movement infamous for its hate-group-level rhetoric, protests, and often violence directed against Jews, Catholics, immigrants, non-whites, and, most prominently, African-Americans like Davis. As Davis explains to the filmmakers in interviews, to seminar crowds at speaking engagements, and to sceptical listeners from across the political spectrum, he hopes through honest good-faith discussion, ordinary politeness, and basic acts of kindness to impress his humanity and decency upon men who inherently deny his claim to both.

Davis has met with some success over the years, making friends with many Klansmen and even gently persuading some of the errors of their racist ways. Those who discard their KKK membership and ideology altogether and credit Davis’ respectful, non-judgemental personal outreach for their conversion gift him with their disavowed Klan robes and paraphenalia, which he keeps in a private collection that he hopes one day to display in a museum. Some might see this practice as strange or even troubling (and some tell Davis so right to his face in no uncertain terms), but for Davis, it constitutes a combination of trophies of victory and a tangible reminder of the deep past and enduring present of white supremacy and social and cultural discrimination against African-Americans.

Director Matthew Ornstein films Davis’ interactions with Klansmen, former Klansmen, and other white nationalists, men who are so often dismissed as frothing bigots and so often dismissive of any and all racial others and political opponents. Very little that any of the stubborn enduring white supremacists who speak to Davis on camera say or do contradicts such generalized labelling, and some who count him as a friend hold him only as an exception to the general negative nature of his “race”. Davis’ desire to recognize the humanity of these men (and very occasionally women) is certainly fraught, lest it perversely, unintentionally justify or normalize their hateful, damaging, extreme ideology (which a more recent credits post-script added to the film’s streaming release recognizes has been emboldened in an unprecedented way by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President).

It’s impossible, however, to watch and listen to Davis speak during and after these encounters and consider him anything but well-intentioned and sincere. In the wider American political and social discourse, the exhortation to hold a meaningful dialogue on racial issues often seems a naive and perhaps cynical faux-panacea suggested by even nominally anti-discrimination figures as a productive-sounding substitute for the fundamental and nigh-on revolutionary social and institutional adjustments necessary to properly address and redress the country’s historical and continuing structures and process of anti-black oppression. Daryl Davis, however, is a charming, low-key evangelist for the transformative potential of such dialogue, at least on a micro level. The son of a State Department diplomat, Davis lived as a child in many foreign countries and in a variety of locations in the United States as well. Like Barack Obama growing up in Indonesia and Hawaii, Davis learned to relate to and connect with a diverse and oft-changing group of peers and was inculcated with the necessity and later the inherent value of forging personal liaisons with those outside of his own background, experience, and culture.

Credit is due to Ornstein and Davis, however, for being willing to include in Accidental Courtesy resonant instances of when, as it did with Obama and his most intransigent critics on the right, this dialogic approach falls short. While some of these instances predictably feature white supremacists (one major KKK leader flatly refuses to even acknowledge Davis as a friend let alone give an inch on his master-race beliefs, and an important American Neo-Nazi treats Davis politely but seems unconvinced by his soft pitch), the most explosively contentious and challenging one involves fellow African-American political activists.

Davis meets with two young Black Lives Matter marchers and organizers in Baltimore, where they have been active in civil disobedience and forceful protest against police brutality and discrimination against African-Americans, particularly following the arrest, beating, and death of Freddie Gray in 2015. Any assumptions an observer (white, especially, but otherwise as well) might have made about the potential common ground between Davis and these men is dispelled very quickly. They are aggressively sceptical about Davis’ methods, about his collection of Klan memoribilia (one flatly states that he would never take his children to any museum about the KKK), and more than anything about the effectiveness of his efforts and their tangible benefits for the African-American community. Through active protest and building of robust black institutions and communities, they feel, their people can derive more advantage than could ever be possible from having coffee with Klansmen who despise them and deny their very personhood.

The encounter degenerates into shouting and namecalling over an issue of minor consequence (which his chats with white racist never seem to, at least that we’re shown), and Davis does not come off very well from the episode. Neither do his younger antagonists, though, who blithely declare their preference for the openly racist Donald Trump (“At least you know where he stands,” they pronounce with a disastrous naiveté which they might come to regret if his administration’s promised law enforcement crackdown on Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest groups comes to fruition) over the unreliable neoliberal Hillary Clinton. Nor do they substantively refute Davis’ accusation of the preference for segregation and separation evident in their views, although his greeting-card sentiment that they must all share the same country, black or white, seems a weak stab at persuasion.

But the whole episode is indelible, hard to shake, and challenges the perspective that has developed and been nurtured throughout the rest of Accidental Courtesy. The utility and even moral standing of Davis’ conversing approach, which Ornstein treats as fascinating and wondrously impressive up to this point in the film, is deeply shaken, and even a feel-good concluding story of one of Davis’ converted Klan scalps who now actively campaigns publicly against racism and white supremacy cannot restore the prior equilibrium. The pregnant dichotomy of the scene in Baltimore, the conflict between the macroscopic, self-righteous, mass-focused activism of Black Lives Matter and the microscopic, self-effacing, modest and friendly activism of Daryl Davis, strikes one as not only unresolved but perhaps tragically unresolvable, seeing as there are elements of merit in both approaches.

If only, the BLM agents insist, they had the time or the patience (or, one must admit, the privilege) to convince one white American at a time to treat them with equal respect and grant them equal opportunities and rights as citizens. But the plight of Black America is simply too urgent, they feel, requiring action more wide-reaching and drastic than Davis’ dialogues, which for all of their good intent strike them as irredeemably foolish and a waste of resources. Davis, for his part, does not see the effective conversion potential in BLM’s activities, and worries their tactics and aims merely calcify the racial divide that he hopes to see erode away. This dialectical collision leaves no answer for the viewer, only deepening the questions and doubts about the correct path to righting America’s most enduring wrong.

A further post-script to Accidental Courtesy, unmentioned in the film due to the proximity of the event to its release, further destabilizes Daryl Davis’ paradigm of hope for American race relations. One of Davis’ KKK friends in the film is a man called Frank Ancona, a Missouri Imperial Wizard (Klan titles and honorifics are like something out of pulp sword-and-sorcery novels; Exalted Cyclops is another). In the days before the film’s release, Ancona’s body was found in a Missouri river. He was murdered, his wife and stepson charged in his death. Personal issues appeared to be the motive, and the world of white supremacist terror groups is a harsh and violent one of its own accord. But one must wonder if the film’s revelation of Ancona’s willingness to relax his racial ideology in the case of Davis played into his death in any way as well. Hate is resilient, even if Daryl Davis kindly and doggedly suggests that love is as well.

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