For a little over an hour, this bear-hug of a doc about a black man who befriends — and helps rehabilitate — Klansmen plays like you might expect it to. Affable Daryl Davis, pianist and conversationalist, road-trips America, checking in on current and former white supremacists, many of whom he has come to consider his friends. The glimpses we get of these friendly encounters are mostly unilluminating beyond their novelty, underscoring the truth that some of these guys are more isolated, fearful, and clueless than truly gripped by hate. They look awfully excited finally to have a black friend, even one who, in his zeal to convert, has claimed the robes of more than two dozen dedicated Knights of the KKK.
Matt Ornstein’s doc perks up when Davis confronts racists with some power in the present. Jeff Schoep, the so-called “commander” of the National Socialist Movement, resists Davis’s cheeriness and contests the idea that his whites-only group is racist. Davis keeps at the killing-with-kindness approach, eventually winning from “Commander” Schoep this concession: “I know black people invented peanut butter, and I like that.” Arkansas pastor Thomas Robb, the national director of the Klan’s “Knight’s Party,” calls the interview off after Davis dares to make a disparaging remark about Christopher Columbus. Robb’s daughter pinch-hits for him, speaking about how her own Klan work doesn’t get in the way of her being a good homeschooling mother. Nothing revealing comes from the discussion, and the filmmakers cut to YouTube videos of her young kids stating that “race-mixing is wrong.”
But then, at last, for a couple of minutes, Accidental Courtesy actually documents something. Meeting with Black Lives Matter activists in Baltimore, Davis goes over about as well as a Brad Paisley/L.L. Cool J duet. Kwame Rose doesn’t see how becoming besties with sheeted cosplay beardos aids the fight against systemic racism. Davis looks stung and soon makes an unfortunate remark about Rose being “ignorant” and a dropout. Rose suggests that Davis’s 25 years of breaking bread with Grand Wizards might have been spent more fruitfully, and things get worse from there, especially when Tariq Touré forcefully challenges the assumptions behind Davis’s lifelong project. The sequence concludes with Touré addressing the filmmakers and viewers directly: “If you follow this dude, you’re part of the problem.”
Accidental Courtesy never recovers — or again becomes that fascinating. The filmmakers seem uncertain what to make of that explosion; like Davis, they shake it off and get back to the business at hand, which is glad-handing haters and trying to expand the horizons of blinkered white folks, one racist at a time. There’s much pleasant travelogue footage of Memphis and D.C., and Davis holds forth memorably on the histories of country, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. (He played with Chuck Berry.) But neither he nor Accidental Courtesy has much time to consider the scene with the BLM activists, who, in the film’s schematic presentation, get depicted as something like a Klan equivalent — just less friendly. Ornstein isn’t taking that Bill O’Reilly position, of course; the film ends with despairing footage of Trump’s election. But this question hangs over the rest of the doc: Why is it only when talking to them that Davis runs out of empathy? Why is it easier to listen to white racism than black outrage?
Directed by Matt Ornstein
First Run Features
Opens January 6, Cinema Village