Pianist Daryl Davis estimates that since the early ‘90s, he’s collected around 25 robes that were worn by Klansmen, each representative of a mind he’s changed and a life he’s converted to anti-racism. Davis, who’s black, has made a name for himself by actively seeking out KKK members to shoot the shit with, in attempt to find common ground. Accidental Courtesy, Matthew Ornstein’s documentary profile of Davis, which played festivals last year and debuted on PBS last night; it is heartening, frustrating, and more often than not, totally surreal. There is, for example, a scene in which Davis accepts a certificate of friendship from the Traditional American Knights, bestowed to him by a man he calls his friend, Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona (who just happened to be killed this past weekend).
Davis’s technique can be cathartic to watch—he calmly exposes the logistical shortcomings of these racists (who often would rather not be referred to as such) by merely asking questions and presenting inarguable facts. The scene in which Jeff Schoep of the National Socialist Movement claims that Elvis Presley invented rock and roll is absurd to the point of self-parody.
Davis’s meeting with Pastor Thomas Robb, national director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, is more contentious. Robb calls Davis’s relationship with his wife, a white woman, “reprehensible,” and says that he would like to hear some “words of appreciation” from black people for the soldiers that died in the Civil War, as well as thanks for money that goes to public housing and healthcare. You can’t help but wonder how Davis can put up with this, and to what degree inner masochism is driving him.
“I am Tom Robb’s friend and I feel that one day he will come around,” says Davis after all this.
“Look, you’re working on the retail strategy; we’re working on the wholesale strategy. We can’t wait around,” says Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which identifies and attempts to dismantle hate groups in the U.S. He’s one of a few vocal critics of Davis and his methods in Accidental Courtesy.
The tensest moment, though, occurs when Davis sits down with Kwame Rose, who’s best known for his Black Lives Matter-affiliated protesting, and writer Tariq Touré. Both question the effectiveness of Davis’s work, noting that 25 converted Klansmen in that many years does not signify remarkable progress, as far as the overall population of the U.S. is concerned. Touré says Davis’s Klan paraphernalia collecting “sounds like a fetish,” while Rose wonders if Davis could have made better use of his time working with black people instead of racists.
“You could be in the streets building with people, right?” says Rose. “So stop wasting your time going into people’s houses that don’t love you, a house where they want to throw you under the basement.”
“You ain’t doing nothing but collecting something that’s gonna build your own credibility. You’re nothing but a pimp in a pulpit,” accuses Rose later.
“And you’re nothing but ignorant,” retorts Davis with considerably less patience than he’s shown offering the some half dozen Klansmen and former Klansmen he sits down with elsewhere in the doc.
Following this confrontation, JC Falk, a Baltimore community organizer, really lets Davis have it:
On one hand, it’s understandable why Davis does what he does, especially if he’s converted as many people as he claims (at least a handful of former KKK members appear in the doc to confirm the effectiveness of his methods). Our country is still so behind in matters of equality and basic human dignity that unorthodox methods such as Davis’s may be in order. Changing people’s lives by revealing your own humanity is such a gratifying experience you understand how it could become addictive or, as Touré puts it, a fetish.
And yet, the anger directed at Davis from the black men he meets with in the movie is rooted in logic and completely understandable, too. Accidental Courtesy doesn’t really offer easy answers, which seems wise since they’re so hard to come by in our diseased country.