PBS doc 'Accidental Courtesy' finds a real conversation about race in Baltimore

Independent Lens gets real on race in Baltimore with 'Accidental Courtesy'

Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the media have been filled with discussions about race. But I have seen nothing as intense or raw as the one in Baltimore that's shown in the PBS documentary "Accidental Courtesy."

The film, which premieres Monday night at 10, follows Daryl Davis, an African-American musician and author, who has been on a mission the past 25 years to try and talk his way beyond racial barriers in a very personal way. The Howard University graduate and Maryland resident has sought out, conversed with and befriended members of the Ku Klux Klan. He has also collected robes and other memorabilia from some Klan members with an eye to opening a museum.

His journey into Klan culture, which fills the first hour of the film and takes Davis across the country, is engaging in its own right. And it's particularly relevant today given all the calls in the media for more conversations about race following civil unrest in cities like Baltimore and Chicago.

But the documentary becomes something special and gets real in a way few media depictions of race have ever done when Davis gets to Baltimore and sits down to talk with local activists Kwame Rose, Tariq Touré and J.C. Faulk. Tempers flare, insults are traded and viewers are offered a no-holds-barred, black-on-black critique of Davis' efforts to engage in dialogue with white supremacists.

If you're looking for a one-dimensional, feel-good production that reinforces the conventional media wisdom that racial differences can be overcome if only we would just listen and talk to each other, "Accidental Courtesy" is probably not for you. It offers a more complicated picture of race today with space created for disagreements within the African-American community about what that conversation should sound like — and who should or shouldn't be at the table. This documentary acknowledges that good intentions might not be good enough to scale some of the divides in American life today.

Born in 1958, the son of a Foreign Service officer, Davis credits living in more than 50 countries with his interest in connecting to different cultures. He definitely brings an anthropologist's sensibility to his quest.

"How can you hate me when you don't even know me?" he says, trying to explain his engagement with the Klan. "Throughout my life, I've been looking for an answer to that. Who better to ask than someone who would join an organization whose whole premise is hating people who do not look like them?"

As he sees it, there's a higher social purpose in his effort, and it's needed more than ever as we become more polarized and locked into our information silos.

"Let's say you and 20 other people have this group that is anti-racist, and all you do is talk about how bad racism is," he says. "Well, what good is that group doing? All you're doing is preaching to the choir. The way you resolve [differences] is you invite somebody to the table who disagrees with you, so you'll understand why they have that point of view. Then, perhaps, you will figure out a solution to dissuade their fears."

To his credit, Davis doesn't just question KKK members the way a reporter might in trying to gather quotes for a story. He appears to engage Klan members more like an ethnographer would sharing his worldview with them while asking them to share theirs so that he might be able to see the world through their eyes.

Viewers get to see some of that engagement in the film. They also hear Davis talking about how he uses music to try and bridge cultural divides.

He's known for his boogie-woogie rock-n'-roll piano playing as a backup musician to such performers as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters, and viewers also see some of that. All of which makes for an appealing package.

But Davis can also be a little full of himself with statements like, "I have seen the future. I know what can be done."

And he regularly reduces complicated matters to simple catchphrases.

"When two enemies are talking, they are not fighting," he says of his Klan conversations.

For much of the first hour, I feared the filmmakers, Matt and Noah Ornstein, were going to let such statements from Davis go unchallenged.

But then, they got to Baltimore, and, did they ever show Davis being challenged. Talking sure didn't stop Rose, Touré, Faulk and him from fighting with words.

"All that [expletive] you're talking about these KKK hoods, who gives a [expletive]?" Faulk, a community organizer and 2016 Open Society Institute fellow, ultimately tells Davis. "I don't give a [expletive] about you or your KKK hoods. Don't come to Baltimore doing this [expletive] again. ... Get the [expletive] out of my face."

The conversation had started out calmly enough with Touré and Rose first sitting down across a table in a restaurant and bar to talk with Davis.

"I would like to know what the end goal is," Touré, a poet and activist, asks Davis in connection with his Klan dialogues.

"My end goal is to bring people together," Davis replies. "OK? Bring white people together with their nemesis. Unless we learn to get along together, this country will ..."

"Why do I have to get along with them?" asks Rose, who is perhaps best known for confronting Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera in the streets of Baltimore over his coverage of the unrest in 2015.

"Because they are our fellow Americans. We all have to live in this country," Davis says.

The statement is met with an expletive, but since the camera is on Davis, it is not clear who uttered it.

After Touré challenges Davis on the value of his planned Klan museum, Rose starts quizzing him on the last 25 years of his Klan encounters.

"So, since 1990, which is longer than I've been alive, you've been trying to infiltrate the Klan. But what does that do for people?" Rose asks. "Infiltrating the Klan ain't freeing your people."

The gloves really start to come off after Davis challenges Rose with a question about Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Rose's answer leads Davis to declare him "uneducated on the matter."

"And you're uneducated about the reality of most of the people who look like you," Rose counters. "Befriending a white person who don't have to go through the same struggles as you or me ... that's not an accomplishment."

"And this is coming from a dropout," Davis replies.

At this point, Touré gets up from the table and walk off.

Rose stays at the table to tell Davis how futile he thinks it is to try and change the mind of a white supremacist. He accuses him of collecting hoods to enhance his own prestige.

"You're nothing but a pimp in a pulpit," he concludes.

"And you're nothing but ignorant," Davis fires back.

The filmmakers break away for an overhead shot of the restaurant, and when we next see the table, it's just Davis and Faulk.

"Kwame marches hard with me in Baltimore. Kwame gets arrested in Baltimore. Where were you when the marches were going on? You were sitting with your Klan people and disrespecting my people," Faulk says forcefully.

"If you can't respect black people and respect my people for doing the work they're doing, take your [expletive] and hang out with them. Freddie Gray is dead. Tyrone West is dead. Anthony Anderson is dead."

Beyond the personal insults, what's at play here is a fierce disagreement about how best to fight racism.

For Davis, it's a matter of engaging in conversation one racist at a time. He points to the robes he's received from Klan members who subsequently left the organization after becoming his friend as evidence that his process can change hearts and minds.

For Faulk, Toure and Rose, fighting racism is a collective act of engagement in the streets, if necessary, confronting the forces of oppression head-on.

In a phone conversation about the film, Faulk told me he also felt Davis was disrespecting Rose and Toure before he stepped in.

No 90-minute documentary is going to resolve such profound disagreement about something as deeply rooted in America's origins as racism. But it is important for all of us to understand such differences if we are going to try and find solutions.

I'll take the intensity and raw truths shown in these eight minutes of documentary filmmaking in Baltimore over all the staged town halls on CNN, MSNBC or Fox talking about race since Ferguson.

Cable and network news have largely failed to shed new light on race.

What "Accidental Courtesy" shows is at times painful to watch. But it's the kind of pain media have to bring to the screen if that much-talked-about conversation on race is ever going to be more than just empty talk on television.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

 

On TV

"Accidental Courtesy" premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on MPT (Channel 22).

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