Matthew Ornstein’s Accidental Courtesy aims straight at the heart of the post-election debate over how to deal with the racist groups emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory: Is it best to engage in conversation and try to change hearts and minds, or to simply work to defeat them? The documentary follows African-American musician and self-appointed race ambassador Daryl Davis as he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. Davis has been engaged in this experiment in radical friendship for nearly 30 years, and he proudly displays roughly two dozen Klan robes that were given to him by former members of the KKK, convinced that his friendship was an important factor in causing their change of heart.
Ornstein raises more questions than he answers throughout the film, an approach that works well in scenes like an explosive encounter between Davis and two young Black Lives Matters activists, Tariq Touré and Kwame Rose, in Baltimore. The normally self-confident Davis is visibly unsettled by the conversation. He tries to shut the two young men down mainly with ad hominem attacks while they ask why he wastes his time with people who hate him. He’s not accomplishing anything, says Rose; he’s just making friends. An older BLM member, JC Faulk, later refutes one of Davis’s proudest claims: that Maryland shut down its KKK chapter after its leader left the Klan thanks to Davis’s friendship. Maybe they did shut down one chapter, Faulk says, but all it takes is a quick Google search to see that the Klan is still operating in the state. Interviewed by the filmmakers later about the encounter, Davis makes the point that he couldn’t articulate in that conversation, asserting that BLM members and other anti-racism activists can never achieve their goal as long as they refuse to believe that white racists are capable of change.
Davis struggles to refute another set of challenges laid down by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok. While careful to acknowledge that Davis’s focus on one-to-one conversion may have some effect, he says the personal approach doesn’t lead to the widespread and profound social change his group aims for. “You’re working on a retail strategy,” he tells Davis. “We’re working on a wholesale strategy. We can’t wait around.” Potok also questions whether anyone can influence people to leave groups like the KKK. “By and large, people come out of these groups when they’re ready to,” he says.
Ironically, the story that opens Accidental Courtesy, in which Davis talks about two Klansmen who quit the group after an encounter with him, shores up Potok’s observation, though it seems to have been intended by Ornstein to make the opposite point. Davis touts the abdications as a victory, but the two men didn’t leave because he made them rethink their prejudices against people of color. Rather, they left because they disapproved of their Klan leader getting so cordial with a black man.
Even Davis’s own feelings about his work aren’t always clear. The film never answers the obvious question of whether he is afraid to approach white supremacists on their own turf, even when a fan who read his book asks him point-blank. He seems calm, even happy, in his encounters with KKK and National Socialist members, never acknowledging what it may cost to maintain that equanimity except to say that it’s important to listen to people “even when it hurts.” As to his motivation, Davis says he’s never aimed to convert white racists. He just wants to answer a question that’s nagged at him since he was a boy: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” And yet, in his book, his lectures and TV appearances, and in many one-to-one conversations in this film, he strongly implies or says outright that he befriends white supremacists with the hope of converting them.
Oft-repeated shots of Davis performing as a musician or visiting old haunts in D.C. feel irrelevant, further weakening the film’s impact. And countless scenes in which he drives past or poses in front of landmarks like the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, interspersed with mini lectures Davis gives about the racial history of popular music and other basic aspects of race in America, imply that Ornstein thinks his audience is in as much need of remedial education on the subject as Davis’s KKK friends.
The “New KKK” episode of W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America tackled the same subject in a more condensed and potent way. Bell drew in his viewers with his frank and funny descriptions of his trepidation as he drove to the KKK cross burning he’d been invited to attend, and his interviews with the Klansmen drew out some interesting information about their rituals and the meaning they found in them. The glimpses this film provides of Klan culture initially spark the same fascination, but even segments like the one in which Davis visits National KKK Director Pastor Thomas Robb rarely reveal more than widely known beliefs, like the Klan’s abhorrence for “miscegenation,” its disdain for black people, and the anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial that are an integral part of so many white supremacists’ beliefs.
So what are we to think of Davis’s life’s work? Is he a patient evangelist, making the case for engaging with our enemies by converting racists one man at a time? Or is he just playing a presumably well-intentioned game of Whac-a-Mole with an ever-growing cohort of people who aren’t going to stop being hateful toward people of color, no matter how happy they may to accept him as their new black friend? A thought-provoking film by a director who doesn’t always think very clearly, Accidental Courtesy is a debater with some interesting points to make but no thesis to contain them.