Normally I don’t see movies close enough to when thy are released to even fathom reviewing them, but this time I saw the 1.5 hour documentary “Accidental Courtesy” on PBS’s Independent Lens website apparently just a week or two after it came out. It’s made by Matt Ornstein and is about Daryl Davis, the black man who befriended dozens of Klansmen with the result that many of them left the Klan.
Davis is an interesting guy to start with: a prolific keyboardist who has seemingly played with just about any iconic American musical act you can think of, from Chuck Berry to the Tonight Show band. But his hobby is particularly compelling: meeting and befriending Klansmen in an effort to answer his lifelong question “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
The documentary doesn’t get hung up in the semantic details of what hatred is and what it really means, and I wouldn’t say it provides any meaningful insight into the Klansmen’s point of view either. So, racism itself goes unexamined. Instead what I love about the movie is the way it champions Davis’s ethos of being willing to sit down and listen to people you disagree with, and to separate the person from the idea. “If you’re talking,” Davis says, “you’re not fighting.”
You can see how seriously Davis takes this ethos in a scene where he is sitting down with Black Lives Matter activists. They are disrespectful and uncivil to him–a striking contrast with the smiling, accommodating white supremacists he talks to at other points in the movie who are obviously moved by his charm–and yet Davis never drops to their level. He sits like a boulder, insistent on two-way dialog and mutual understanding. Even while being cussed at and stormed out on, he extends a hand of friendship and says “Let me walk with you.”
I empathize with Davis because he doesn’t seem to get offended by anything–or if he does, he doesn’t let it sour his disposition–and he doesn’t even hesitate about stepping off whatever reservation to which he might be said to belong. He’s interested in seeing up close the people who tend to get vilified from afar, and he knows there is always the potential to change people’s minds or at least make a friend.
Technically, the movie is nicely done (some poor audio quality here and there can be forgiven) and even has some subtle visual themes that support the subject matter. To some degree the movie is a series of vignettes in which Davis sits on one side of the screen and some Klansman or neo-Nazi sits on the other, punctuated occasionally by scenes of Davis playing keyboards, but the rhythm and motivation is established well early on, so these odd rendezvouses and the lack of context around each one doesn’t feel too contrived.
I highly recommend this movie; it left me thinking and feeling inspired.
Watch the movie here: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/accidental-courtesy/