If you watch one episode of television this week, make it Vice News Tonight’s “Charlottesville: Race and Terror,” 22 minutes of bracing footage from the calamitous events in Virginia last weekend. The episode — which is available on YouTube, where it racked up nearly 5 million views by Thursday afternoon — adheres to the old “show don’t tell” adage, and in this case, that’s particularly important. Because whatever you’ve read or retweeted, whatever Facebook arguments you’ve waded into or mealtime exorcisms you’ve attempted with your racist uncle, there is no explaining away what the cameras captured in Charlottesville.
“Charlottesville: Race and Terror” makes that frighteningly, viscerally clear. Vice’s unflappable Elle Reeve follows a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, including Christopher Cantwell, a leading figure in the “alt-right.” (Not to be confused with Christopher Cantwell, co-creator of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, who recently added a clarification to his Twitter bio: “Not the shitty racist awful Christopher Cantwell.”) Cantwell tells Reeve that he started getting involved in “the racial stuff” after the stories of slain unarmed black kids like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice began generating widespread outrage. According to Cantwell, these weren’t examples of police brutality but of “some little black asshole behaving like a savage.”
Reeve admirably walks the tightrope of interviewing people with repugnant views: She keeps her cool when, for instance, Cantwell describes his ideal leader as “somebody like Donald Trump who does not give his daughter to a Jew,” or when Robert “Azzmador” Ray, a writer for the Daily Stormer, tells her, “This city is run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers.”
While some might feel understandably queasy hearing those words — a group of UVA students and activists who had counterprotested the events released an open letter declaring that Vice simply gave white supremacists and neo-Nazis a platform for their hateful views — it should be clear by now that these people are not going to go away if we ignore them. The truth is, the president has already given these groups a far bigger platform than Vice ever could. We can’t confront this problem without first looking it square in the face.
This episode has gone viral for a reason. It’s not only that Reeve is embedded with the white supremacists who are positively giddy at all the excitement they’re causing; it’s that the cameras are right in the middle of the action, not filming from a distance or on a shaky cellphone but holding steady among a sea of white men (and the occasional woman) yelling, “Jews will not replace us.” (Props to directors of photography Zach Caldwell and Orlando de Guzman.) The result is so much blunter and, frankly, scarier than any of the newspaper reports make it out to be; many of those articles still can’t quite resist framing the events of the weekend as a kind of “he said/she said” conflict, where two parties came together and clashed.
We see rival protesters chanting, “We’re here, we’re gay, we fought the KKK,” and, on the other side, “Fuck you, faggots.” Former KKK imperial wizard David Duke pops in to decry the “ethnic cleansing of America.” After James Alex Fields Jr.’s car plows through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one individual — who would later be identified as 32-year-old Heather Heyer — a distraught Black Lives Matter protester and Charlottesville local tells the camera, “We told city council we did not want them here. They let them come. We told the police we did not want them here. They let them come.”
In one brief, bone-chilling scene after the attack, a black woman bends forward, hands on her knees, and screams. A bit later, we hear an excerpt of Trump’s Saturday speech, blaming “many sides” for the violence and chaos. At another point, we see Jason Kessler, the “Unite the Right” rally’s organizer, attempting to give a press conference on Sunday amid boos and cries of “Shame!” before he’s chased out of town.
If you’ve been following the news over the past week, you’ve probably heard about most of this stuff already; you’ve probably seen the tweets and the video clips, heard the “many sides” speech, scoffed at the pictures of white dudes in khakis marching with dime-store tiki torches. That’s how most of us get our news these days — scrolling through a never-ending stream of bad news in a stupor of disbelief. It’s a chaotic form of news consumption that befits a chaotic moment in American history, but it’s often a confusing, disorienting way to digest the events of the day. “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” cuts through the haze with this candid and clear-eyed piece of reportage, which puts the words and actions of the so-called alt-right front and center.
The episode ends with Reeve visiting Cantwell in a hotel room in North Carolina on Sunday night. He shows off his large cache of weapons, denies that his movement bears responsibility for Heather Heyer’s death (“None of our people killed anybody unjustly”), and says it’s “points for us” that no one “on our side died.” Maybe it’s a fantasy to imagine that those who choose to filter reality through Fox News will watch this report and confront the truth about those “very fine people” the president has defended. But, in light of his appalling press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday afternoon, it’s also difficult to imagine how anyone who claims to repudiate Trump’s “alt-right” base could continue to support him after watching this. Here’s hoping.