Movie of the Month: Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America

Is it possible that Donald Trump was right when he said there are many fine people among white supremacists? Can deplorable beliefs be separated from the people who believe them? Can people change? What is worth risking to find out?

“Let me tell you a story,” Daryl Davis says at the beginning of “Accidental Courtesy,” and he proceeds to tell a story–one of many–about how he befriended some members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Davis is a black man in his late fifties, a Grammy Award winning musician who has played with the likes of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and Chuck Berry. He is also an actor, and the author of a book called “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.”

Since 1983, Davis has made it his mission to sit down with Klan members and talk with them about their beliefs. His original goal was to find the answer to a question that has plagued him since childhood: How can someone hate him when they know nothing about him?

What he has found, he says, is that hate is rooted in fear, and fear can be overcome. As evidence of this, Davis displays a collection of high level Klan garments–robes and hoods belonging to Imperial Wizards and Grand Dragons and whatnot–that were given to him by Klan members who ultimately left the Klan because their association with Davis changed their beliefs. Says Davis:

“The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be…

[C]hallenge them…politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he [Roger Kelly, former Grand Dragon] and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.”

Davis and Kelly are now friends, and Davis is godfather to Kelly’s daughter.

We often say that Americans need to have a conversation about race, but with whom should we have it, and of what should it consist? As Davis points out, if a group of people who all agree that racism is bad get together and talk about how bad racism is, what is being accomplished?

Certainly Davis’s approach is not for everyone, and the movie documents some of his conversations with people from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Black Lives Matter movement, who clearly take a different view of how to deal with hate groups. Which is not to say that one approach is right and another is wrong; the Southern Poverty Law Center has shut down entire chapters of the Klan, while Davis has converted perhaps two or three dozen people, not by setting out to convert, but by making genuine human connections, with humor and compassion. By listening, and trying to understand.

This film, directed by Matthew Ornstein, has won numerous international awards and special prizes, including Special Jury Recognition for a Portrait Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, the Jury’s Recognition for a Film that Provokes Continued Conversation at the Athens International Film and Video Festival, and the Nashville Public Television Human Spirit Award.

Ornstein opens the film with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, one that is worth repeating here:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of [each] generation.”


To request a copy of this film click here.

For a list of ten films about white supremacy, click here.

posted: , by Patti DeLois
tags: Library Collections | Adults | Teens | Seniors | Art & Culture
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